Chris Mason’s journey to the job of BBC political editor has been two decades of incremental promotions followed by a very rapid final ascent. Two weeks ago, he hadn’t even formally applied for the political editor role, according to individuals with knowledge of the process, because he had not expected to be in contention.
But BBC bosses, suddenly concerned that he could become the latest big name to leave the national broadcaster for the private sector – having previously been wooed by Times Radio – suggested he might want to reconsider and reopened applications for his benefit. On Tuesday he was formally interviewed by senior management. And just 24 hours later Mason was announced to the world as the new political editor, succeeding Laura Kuenssberg and upending months of very public speculation over who would get the job – and beating the previous all-female shortlist in the process.
Asked to sum up the appointment, one colleague said simply: “Nice guy gets job.” Internally, he is seen as the ultimate safe pair of hands – with both the pluses and minuses that entails – for a BBC news operation in transition. The nearest Mason has come to trouble the online news clickbait factories is when he said he had never watched an episode of Friends on an episode of the Brexitcast podcast. The most salacious detail offered up by one colleague was Mason’s unfortunate habit of leaving half-chewed carrots around the newsroom.
“He’s basically been a 50-year-old man since he was a student,” said an individual who has known Mason since university. “But a genuinely lovely person and untouched by fame… Unlike some of his colleagues from him, I genuinely never hear a bad word about him.”
Iain Dale, the former Conservative parliamentary candidate turned LBC presenter, said: “To this day I have no clue what his politics are, and that’s a great thing.”
This could be because Mason started working for the corporation long before the social media age, joining its Newcastle newsroom in 2002 after a year at ITN. As a result, when pro-government researchers comb through the Twitter accounts of BBC journalists for evidence of political opinions, they have nothing to go on. Unlike other potential candidates for the job – such as the Daily Mirror’s Pippa Crerar or ITV’s Paul Brand – he has not recently broken stories that infuriated the government.
The other side of this is that he is known more for being a broadcaster than an investigative journalist. Colleagues describe him as the sort of person who can keep an audience on side while filling time for hours in the rain outside Downing Street then rapidly explain what an announcement means. But he’s not known as the sort of person who regularly lands big exclusives.
This perhaps raises wider questions – which the BBC struggles with internally – about what the role of their political journalism should be. The holder of the political editor job can still reach tens of millions of people a day with their broadcasts, articles, and blogs, giving them enormous power to shape public attitudes towards government policy. In turn, the holder has to navigate the enormous pressure that Downing Street puts on the corporation’s Westminster news operation. In recent years the BBC has come under scrutiny for whether it is getting the balance right between explaining the news through a Westminster lens and declaring what is really happening.
As a child, Mason would watch ITN’s political editor Michael Brunson while attending the local state grammar school in Skipton. Although his father is a Dalesman, his mother is from Hull and he speaks with pride of his connections to the county, despite leaving to study geography at the University of Cambridge. He still ensures that every print copy of the local Craven Herald and Pioneer newspaper is posted down to his south-east London home. In a BBC that is constantly embarrassed about its lack of on-air regional accents, some parts of the corporation’s management have sometimes spoken about Mason’s Yorkshire accent as a prized curiosity rather than an unremarkable characteristic.
When Dale interviewed Mason about his background for a podcast, the future BBC political editor made clear that he was never expected to join the media – but it was enthusiasm that had carried him to the top: “I don’t know where that passion for radio and news and politics and current affairs came from. There isn’t any journalistic or media heritage in the family.
“My parents are both primary school teachers, my grandfather was a builder. I got a little white radio when I was seven and just got obsessed with it.”