The director of BBC Northern Ireland will not be returning to the role this summer as planned, the Sunday Independent has learned.
ast November, the corporation said Peter Johnston was to temporarily step down from his high-profile job to lead the delivery of a plan to improve impartiality within the organisation.
It was indicated Mr Johnston would return to his role in Belfast this summer.
However, his work on the impartiality project has been extended until the end of January.
BBC staff were recently told about the move by Adam Smyth, who has taken on the role of interim director of BBC Northern Ireland in Mr Johnston’s absence.
In an email, Mr Smyth said he wished to provide some “clarity” about leadership at BBC Northern Ireland in the months ahead.
“As you know, I was appointed as interim director until the end of July while Peter Johnston has been working on the impartiality project,” he wrote.
“That work is going to take a little longer, so Peter has been extended in post until the end of January 2023, and my attachment has been extended behind him.”
BBC sources have said the decision to extend Mr Johnston’s secondment has raised questions among staff over whether or not he will return to the top position in Northern Ireland.
He has been in the job since 2006 and has overall editorial and managerial responsibility for the BBC here. According to the broadcaster’s latest accounts, Mr Johnston receives an annual salary of between £195,000 and £199,999.
He joined BBC Northern Ireland in 1994 and worked in audience research before becoming head of marketing and development.
Mr Johnston was later head of broadcasting for three years, in overall control of commissioning and scheduling of programmes across television, radio and online.
Prior to his appointment as interim director, Mr Smyth was BBC Northern Ireland’s head of news and current affairs, a role he took up in 2018. He has also worked as a reporter and editor of radio current affairs and digital news.
Kevin Kelly, a long-time member of the BBC Northern Ireland editorial team, has been appointed temporary head of news and current affairs to replace Mr Smyth.
A BBC spokesperson said: “Staff were informed in the summer that Peter Johnston’s work on the BBC’s 10-point impartiality plan has been extended until the start of 2023, and Adam Smyth’s attachment has been extended behind him.”
The impartiality project was launched after an inquiry found the BBC fell short of “high standards of integrity and transparency” over the infamous Martin Bashir interview with Princess Diana in 1995, when Bashir was found to have acted in a “deceitful” way and faked documents to obtain the interview.
An internal BBC review led by Nicholas Serota, chairman of Arts Council England, resulted in a number of recommendations.
Mr Johnson has been given responsibility by BBC director general Tim Davie to lead the subsequent delivery changes around editorial processes, governance and culture.
The review by Mr Serota pointed to “a failure of scrutiny at each stage”, around the Bashir scandal and concluded the events were a “betrayal of the values and standards which should underpin every action at the BBC, at all levels”.
Following the review, the BBC committed to a 10-point “impartiality plan” to “further raise standards across the organisation and challenge claims of bias”.
Mr Johnston is leading the project and last year said it was “a complex and substantial piece of work which needs to begin immediately”.
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