By: Radhakrishna N S
By Barnie Choudhury
BAL SAMRA was never a typical BBC ‘suit’, the term that is used for the corporation’s senior managers.
He is a people person, willing to help, to volunteer for projects others did not wish to do, and always, unfailingly, crediting his team for success.
Until he departs next year, Samra remains the BBC’s highest-ranking south Asian.
He brought into the corporation commercial acumen from his time at Unilever and Marconi. But be under no illusion, his ability to negotiate deals will be a massive loss to the BBC. He started at the bottom in corporate finance, but in time, Samra would launch BBC News Online, Radio Five Live, and the BBC iPlayer.
This year, the BBC and ITV launched Britbox, a subscription platform which offers the best dramas and soaps from the two companies. Favourites such as EastEnders, Coronation Street, Dr Who and Downton Abbey are included.
Samra led the project for the BBC.
Speaking exclusively to Eastern Eye before announcing his decision to leave the corporation after 30 years, he said, “Its [Britbox] fundamental purpose is to have a commercial proposition, which is full of British content. That’s so important, in my view, for the whole ecosystem of the UK public service broadcasting.
“Without that, we’re going to have a diminishing focus on British talent, British producers, British content, so it’s a very big partnership.”
The BBC has been criticised this year for systemic, structural and institutional racism after dozens of current and former staff contacted me. It eventually led to MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport select committee asking questions of its new director general, Tim Davie.
So, to lose its most senior south Asian executive will alarm many, and they are right to be concerned. As a story of what the BBC needs when it comes to diversity, Samra is it.
This commercial director never went to the right schools or the right university. In fact, he never went to university. His is a tale of immigrant parents who set up a business in the rag trade, moving to Essex as the first non-white family in Tilbury Docks, he said.
Samra is committed to young people and improving their chances through his being a trustee of the Ormiston Academies Trust. It is a not-for-profit, and importantly it runs his old school.
He is also chair of the StoryFutures Academy is the UK’s National Centre for Immersive Storytelling, run by the National Film and Television School and Royal Holloway, University of London.
Samra is proud of nurturing talent, harnessing and championing diversity. In an email he wrote, “Here’s that report I was talking about – just published. As chair, I was determined to ensure we had diversity built into the work of the executive right upfront. Have a skim, you’ll see after two years we’re ahead of targets.”
The person who beat off racists during his school days knows what it is like to be an underdog. And when speaking to Samra, you realise that ethos of helping underdogs is unlikely to ever leave him.