‘I never said I wanted to be director-general’ says departing BBC TV boss Danny Cohen

The Corporation's outgoing director of television denies "conspiracy theories" and says of his next role that he is undecided but "really open" to the possibility of a move into the world of on-demand TV

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Outgoing BBC director of television Danny Cohen has poured cold water on suggestions that he had been hoping to one day lead the organisation.

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His departure, received with widespread surprise this morning, leaves a huge hole at the top of BBC management and means the loss to the Corporation of a man who was seen by many as the next director-general in waiting.

But asked in an exclusive interview by RadioTimes.com whether he has now given up on the ambition of getting the top job in British television, he said: “I am not sure it ever was [my ambition]. I never said it was. It was what other people have said about me. I have had a wonderful time here. It’s never been a stated ambition of mine. I have had a wonderful time here but I am ready for something new.”

Cohen made it clear that, despite the shock nature of his announcement today, he has not fallen out with director-general Tony Hall, with whom he is said to have disagreed on a number of issues including how to handle wayward former Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson.

Asked if his relationship with Lord Hall has changed in the last few weeks, he said: “Not at all. We have had a great relationship and I was touched by the things he said today. And we have always got on extremely well.

“People might try and come up with some conspiracy theories and read the runes of what’s happen here and look for this here and this there. It’s genuinely not that. It’s someone who’s been somewhere for eight years had a great time and now wants to do something different.”

Cohen added that he was “really confident in Tony’s leadership, really confident in the senior team” and believed that the BBC would emerge from its current charter renewal period in “fine fettle”.

“I think I am leaving a really great senior leadership team. I think everything’s going to be just fine. Truly.

“As long as [the BBC] keeps making great television and radio and doing great things it will be fine. Because the public will care about it so much.”

Cohen insisted that he is leaving with no job to go to because he was anxious that his decision would leak and unsettle his colleagues.

He said he decided to quit “a few weeks ago” but that there were “things going on for the Corporation” that he didn’t want to overshadow, including Hall’s announcement about a raft of new science programmes last month and the Royal Television Society Cambridge Convention.

“It all happened quite recently in terms of talking to the BBC about it. I wanted to keep it tight.

“I was keen my team heard it from me. It happened quite fast so I wanted them to hear it from me.”

Asked if he could have discreetly applied for other jobs while maintaining his position he said: “I don’t think you can at the BBC given the amount of scrutiny that happens here. 

“I think the quite unique level of scrutiny you get here… it becomes very difficult to do that, it felt cleaner and fairer to my team to be clearer what I was doing and go and decide what I wanted to do.”

Cohen wouldn’t say what he will look back on least fondly about the job but asked if he would miss the Daily Mail, a newspaper that has been very vocal in its criticisms of him, he laughed: “I don’t think I would do myself any favours answering that one.”

Does he agree with those who believe the BBC has been criticised too heavily in the UK and is valued more highly abroad? “I understand why you are asking that, but I feel that today is not quite the right day to be answering that. I am trying to keep it clean today. I think I will be able to talk about that some time in the future, but not now.”

In terms of his next move, Cohen said he was considering the option of working in the digital world, perhaps even in on-demand TV.

“I am really open to that. I am really engaged. One of the questions we now ask is how much of a difference is there between the two. I am very interested in digital. I love television. I love watching TV. I am very interested in the making of TV. I am going to be open-minded about what the best thing is.

“I have had some interesting approaches but I genuinely am not committed to anything. I was approached earlier in the year for something I decided not to do. And rumours got out and it unsettled my team and I decided it was time for a new adventure, time for the next big challenge. I decided to leave and talk to people about those opportunities rather than unsettle people here.”

Asked if he was leaving the BBC at a time of need, he said: “You can pick any time with the BBC and pick out things that are going on. There is always something going on with the BBC. Really and truly, running the BBC is never about one person.

“I am genuinely not committed to anything. I haven’t decided. It may be America, it may be the UK, it may be Europe. I haven’t decided. I have had some really exciting things people have brought to me. I genuinely haven’t decided so I am going to finish off here and sit down with my wife and decide what we are going to do.”

As for his advice to his successor, Cohen said he would encourage the next director of television to “take risks and back great talent”.

However he declined to answer that most burning of questions: what is his favourite BBC programme?

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“I can’t answer that. It’s like being asked which your favourite child is. Or your least favourite child…”