New BBC Chair Samir Shah laid down a marker across multiple topics this morning, announcing his intentions to review the corporation’s reporting guidelines on the Israel–Hamas war, addressing concerns around financing and saying he was told he is “mad” to be taking on the role.

While questioning whether Gary Lineker had broken social media guidelines with his latest Twitter (now X) scandal, he also acknowledged “criticism” over the way the broadcaster has covered the Israel-Hamas war, a highly charged topic since October 7.

Were he to be appointed chair, the former head of the BBC’s political news programs said he would “review” the matter, especially whether the BBC should be referring to Hamas as “terrorists,” a source of controversy that the BBC has faced up to over past weeks.

“It seems to me there is enough in terms of criticism of the way the BBC has covered this war,” he said. “The BBC does a periodic review of its editorial guidelines and it seems to me that the issues that the current was has thrown up need to be absolutely part of that.”

“It is not an adequate enough response [for the BBC] to say ‘both sides are criticizing us and therefore we must be doing something right’,” he went on to say, calling this approach “a soundbite, but the ambition of a BBC journalist should be that neither side is criticizing us and [everyone] thinks we’re doing well.”

He said the BBC needs to “consider very clearly” its refusal to call Hamas “terrorists” – rather than referring to the group as a “proscribed terrorist organization” – and said the latter phrase “feels a bit clunky to me, it’s not the natural speech of a reporter.”

Responding to a question over whether the pubcaster is having a “good war,” Shah acknowledged that BBC journalists are “working in difficult circumstances, so we need to be cautious sitting here in the safety of Britain questioning whether they are having a ‘good war’ or not.”

Shah was speaking to the Culture, Media & Sport Committee prior to being rubberstamped for the job, which is deemed a formality. He was unveiled as the government’s preferred candidate for Chair last week, just a day before the license fee was announced to be rising by less than previously planned, which the BBC has said will leave it with a shortfall of around £90M ($112M).

“The controversies of my predecessor”

Following a period during which board member Dame Elan Closs Stephens has been acting up, Shah will replace Richard Sharp, who was forced to resign after failing to declare his role in the facilitation of a loan facility for former Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

Shah said he was told he was “mad” when he said he wanted to replace Sharp and people questioned “whether I really knew what I’m doing partly because of the controversies of my predecessor.”

“It is a tough job,” he added. “The BBC is forever in the line of sight and it needs to behave properly. I care for it, it provides services of huge public value and if I can help it do that then I am keen to do so.”

In what may be interpreted a barbed remark towards Sharp – who became entangled over his involvement with politicians prior to his appointment – Shah stressed his commitment to the BBC’s Nolan Principles, adding: “I understand you have to be honest and be transparent, and I bring those qualities.”

Shah denied he had spoken to anyone in government since applying for the role and revealed that he was “put up” to the job by Andrew Neil, the former BBC politics program presenter who “goes back a long way” with Shah. “Andrew believes impartiality needs to to be central and it’s also what I do. His feeling was it would be good to have someone on the board who understands that.”

Shah said he expects plenty of “media scrutiny” having been “in the eye of the storm” when he ran the BBC’s political programs. “I’m expecting it to take place and I hope that I have the ability to deal with that.”

He added that he “has the stomach” to address the BBC’s culture from the ground up if it runs into issues.

Shah was questioned repeatedly on the political leanings of other BBC board members such as Sir Robbie Gibb, who was accused of being involved with a cover-up over the Ofcom chair appointment by former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, but he stressed several times that he is not aware of the circumstances around Gibb and the appointment.

Former acting chair Stephens has previously said Gibb did not breach the BBC’s guidelines and Shah told the committee he will “not give answers based on a series of hypotheticals and allegations, but will first talk to Dame Elan about it.”

“As a chair you have to be careful of what you say because it carries weight,” he added. “Editorial is the responsibility of the Director General and if I had an issue I would speak to him first.”

Reputation & competition

Serious funding challenges are on the horizon, said Shah, with hundreds of millions in savings required as the cost of programing becomes more expensive and the £90M shortfall set to have even more of an impact on finances. Following the government’s shock license fee decision last week, the BBC said: “Our content budgets are now impacted, which in turn will have a significant impact on the wider creative sector across the UK.”

Shah said the “important thing for the BBC is to remain distinctive and make programs that are valuable [to its remit].” He said he would “invite the Director General to rethink” if he felt that a plan for content cuts “wasn’t distinctive enough.”

“The BBC has to take tough decisions to balance the books,” added Shah. “Every decision has a price. You have to think strategically about what the genuine problems are and how you run the BBC when you have a 30% drop in your income.”

The BBC’s reputation in the UK “has changed” over time as the likes of Sky and the streamers have entered the media space, he considered.

He said Sky has done a “terrific” job in sport, lowering the BBC’s reputation from when it was the “only game in town,” while pointing to big budget streamer shows such as Apple TV+’s Slow Horses, which he described as “stunning.”

The corporation is also facing up to a talent drain with the likes of The Crown creator Peter Morgan finding work elsewhere, added Shah.

His appointment will now very likely be rubberstamped before he begins the three-to-four-days-a-week role, which pays around £160,000 per year.