“Moved by a Sense of History”
Ian Jones with OTT’s guide to the BBC Director-Generals
First published March 2004
The most powerful job in British TV has been occupied by, amongst others, a dockside labourer, a solicitor, at least three former privates of the British army, a tickertape distribution boy, an aspirant advertising agency copywriter, an engineering graduate, and a shop-floor assistant from Marks & Spencer. At the time of writing, the search is on for another individual to take on the mantle of the BBC’s editor-in-chief and become the latest in an esteemed line of figures who have variously sought to champion, re-shape, strip back, enlarge and generally re-model one of the most well-known institutions in existence.
Rather than indulging in speculation on who is most likely to be charged with rescuing the Beeb from its post-Hutton Report doldrums, OTT has instead looked back through time to chart the fortunes and failings of each former Director-General. Some are household names; others obscure characters rarely heard of or even written about before. All share the unique distinction of heading up the most important, and as far as OTT is concerned, the best broadcasting organisation in the world.
With such rank comes, inevitably, a perilous level of responsibility, and just as much potential to work wonders as wreak havoc. What follows is not so much a history but a reflection on each DG, their chief achievements, personal quirks and abiding legacies, and above all what impact their actions had on the owners of the BBC: us. Each profile is rounded off with a cursory mark out of ten, thereby ranking each incumbent in OTT’s notional DG hall of fame.
1. John Reith (1922 – 38)
“Broadcasting has helped and hastened the secularising of the Sabbath. I, for one, am sorry to be old enough to remember the days when Sunday was otherwise.”
Stumbling accidentally in the role of one of the most important men of the 20th century, John Reith had no template or precedent for guiding him in the creation of the BBC. Consequently, having nowhere and nobody else to look to, he turned it into a giant version of himself.
An engineer by trade, Scottish by birth and only 33 when offered the job of General Manager of the British Broadcasting Company, Reith had youth, zeal, scientific terminology and physical intimidation (he was 6″ 7′) on his side. But throughout his spell in charge of both Company and (from 1927) Corporation, successive Tory and Labour Governments coerced and conciliated him, engaged in an ongoing exercise in trying to figure out the most publicly acceptable and privately remunerative relationship with the eerie new organisation. High level power play above all else formed the backdrop to Reith’s tenure as DG: he spent virtually his entire time at the top revelling in establishment patronage, swanning pompously from Downing Street to Whitehall to Buckingham Palace while carving out an image of being as far removed from the average BBC audience as was possible.
Of course this itself was an extension of the famous Reithian philosophy, along which lines the BBC was ruthlessly forced to develop. The theory was utterly laudable; its implementation totally lamentable. Insisting that the practice of broadcasting should be qualified and quantified as a public service, which moreover should be publicly funded, was Reith’s finest hour. Turning such noble words into deeds, however, involved the BBC’s tiny staff negotiating a course through a political and cultural minefield, all the time being mercilessly assailed by an evermore autocratic and eccentric Director-General, obsessed with not letting a wireless-obsessed nation think for itself.
The standoff over the independence of the BBC during the 1926 General Strike had led to the formation of the Corporation and a Board of Governors, all of whom Reith mistrusted. The longer he stayed in the job, the less he trusted his deputies and the more he meddled in the BBC’s output, fearing that with the institution’s growth came a dilution of its moral and ethical code. Sure, the Corporation could and should forever fulfil its trio of cornerstone obligations: to inform, to educate, and to entertain, but always in that order, and not without wearing a dinner jacket.
Reith’s legacy is that of the flawed hero: the right mission, the wrong method. His crusade got mixed up with his character, his prejudices ran amok, and the role of dictator (dispatching off-message producers to Manchester) replaced that of innovator. Most fatal of all, Reith hated the idea of television (“a social menace of the first magnitude”), personally loathing John Logie Baird to the extent of omitting all references to the man in his memoirs, and only attending the launch of the BBC’s TV service under supreme duress (“I have declined to be televised or take part,” he moaned in his diary). Such outright hostility set the Beeb’s development back decades.
A bizarre sequence of events, beginning with BBC staff invoking legal action over the existence of a talking mongoose on the Isle of Man and ending with the abdication of the King, led to Reith being “invited” to tender his resignation in 1938. He never forgave his former employers for this palace coup (harbouring a grudge until his death in 1971), though he did make sure to spend his last evening as DG driving round to all the Corporation’s transmitters and closing them down by hand. As much genius as desk-bound despot, Reith nonetheless conjured up something wonderful, if not magical, from the chaos he contrived around him: a philosophy – public service broadcasting – and a practice – the licence fee – that have survived over 80 years of relentless assault.
OTT rating: 7/10
2. Frederick Ogilvie (1938 – 42)
“The BBC, no less than the three fighting services, has been under orders since the war began.”
The precarious task of helming a post-Reith BBC required someone who could match their predecessor in rhetoric and vision, but who could also bring a fresh and re-energising influence upon the Corporation, able to reconstitute the organisation’s founding principles for a new generation. A nice long period of command, preferably untrammelled by any kind of internal or external crises, would’ve been ideal.
Frederick Ogilvie had the misfortune to profit from none of these. He lasted only four years in the job, faced a world war within 12 months of taking over, and above all proved forever unable to emerge from the shadow of his forerunner. A former Tory MP and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University in Belfast, he was still relatively young when appointed DG (45), but singularly failed to inject any youth or vitality into an institution grown creaky and timid under the iron rule of its creator. Reith’s inability to shut up made things even worse. Endless comments about what Ogilvie was doing wrong flowed forth from a man who still commanded a very voluble public presence in his new job as Chairman of Imperial Airways, and who thought nothing untoward in openly criticising his successor despite sharing a similar Scottish Presbyterian, church-going background.
The outbreak of the World War II left Ogilvie completely emasculated, nominally in charge but in truth helpless in the face of a Government whose initial response to the outbreak of hostilities was to consider closing down the entire Corporation. Ogilvie hardly exhibited the gritty qualities necessary to fight back, having previously concluded the most appropriate way for the Beeb to respond to the looming conflict was to clear the airwaves for repeated recordings of a nightingale singing, thinking it reflective of “Britain’s peace-loving intentions.”
Even though the Government decided to maintain radio services during the war, its relationship with the BBC was hopeless, chaperoned on the one side by a befuddled Ministry of Information and on the other by an increasingly despondent Director-General, who was reduced to penning fawning letters of admiration to Winston Churchill congratulating him on his command on the French language. A gloomy Ogilvie finally resigned on 26 January 1942, later becoming Principal of Jesus College, Oxford. He died in June 1949.
OTT rating: 2/10
3. Cecil Graves (1942 – 43)
“It will be well to remember that BBC officials are not always right in their judgement of the impact of their work on the listener. They are not necessarily competent assessors of the public taste.”
The BBC Governors’ considered response to the desperately potent problem of how to resolve, and rapidly improve, relations with the Government in the midst of a world war was ham-fisted in the extreme. Rather than appoint one person to replace Frederick Ogilvie, they concocted a demented prototype job-share set-up, whereby the existing Deputy Director-General would work in tandem with a former head of a nationwide electrics company.
Presumably concluding that in times of national emergency two heads were better than one, the Governors’ believed their peculiar system would instill the Beeb with a Blitz-inspired dual mix of both editorial and structural fortitude. Instead it was a huge affront to Cecil Graves, a BBC lifer who’d risen steadily to the post of Deputy DG and who commanded frightening authority within the Corporation (he once personally upbraided Richard Dimbleby for opening a report with “an inverted sentence”, and almost sacked the then head of news RT Clarke for not showing enough respect for Spanish fascist leader General Franco).
Once appointed joint Director-General at the age of 51, Graves was in fact just as ill-suited for mobilising the BBC to cover the war as his predecessor, reluctant to take a lead in implementing a global network of correspondents embedded within the various Allied forces. His background as a professional soldier prejudiced him against journalists and in favour of the military, an attitude that provoked increasing rancour within the Corporation. But then Graves’ ill-health intervened, and although he would go on to live for another 14 years, he decided to retire in 1943. It was an act which ironically enabled the institution Graves had helped nurture for almost two decades to completely overhaul its wartime reporting practices, just, as it turned out, in the nick of time.
OTT rating: 3/10
4. Robert W Foot (1942 – 44)
“Everybody not out in the battlefield must be kept as fully aware of and stirred by military operations as is compatible with security.”
The man parachuted in to co-run the BBC with Cecil Graves was a former solicitor who’d most recently acted as General Manager of the Gas, Light and Coke Company. It was Foot’s industrial background that really persuaded the Governors to hoist him upon a rather unwilling and suspicious Corporation, in the belief his experience running a national service industry during wartime would help the BBC to work in step with the Government and dissuade ministers from any thoughts of marching down to take over Broadcasting House completely.
Foot and Graves actually got on rather well, but their partnership was prematurely curbed by the latter’s sudden retirement leaving a somewhat bewildered Foot, with no proper experience of working in broadcasting whatsoever, sole Director-General from September 1943 onwards. Selflessly declaring himself inappropriate to lead the BBC at such a vital point in its existence, and mindful of how the war seemed about to move into its most crucial and decisive phase, Foot responded with what became, in retrospect, an astonishingly shrewd and insightful gesture.
He persuaded the Governors of the need to not only appoint a new DG as soon as possible, but to accord his successor the title of “editor-in-chief”, thereby enshrining the need for a Director-General to champion and defend both broadcasting and managerial interests. In doing this, Foot actually had more influence over the BBC than any of his immediate predecessors, and his ultra-brief tenure at the top proved vital in shaping the Corporation’s entire long-term future. Indeed, his actions led directly to the Governors appointing, for the very first time, a proper journalist as Director-General. Foot left the Beeb in March 1944 to become Chairman of the Mining Association, and lived until 1973.
OTT rating: 4/10
5. William Haley (1944 – 52)
“I would tell the Governors, that is my decision or this is my appointment. If you don’t like it you can sack me.”
For a period lasting roughly 12 months after his appointment, William Haley was one of the best Director-Generals the BBC has ever had. Unfortunately, for the remainder of his epic term in office – a subsequent seven, baleful years – he was one of the worst.
Headhunted specifically because of his journalistic credentials – he was Managing Director of the Manchester Guardian and Evening News – Haley arrived at the Beeb in late 1943 to take up the new post of editor-in-chief, combining this – as had been the Governors’ intention – with the role of DG when Robert Foot departed in spring 1944. This crossover period was designed to ease Haley, an outsider, into the fiercely insular culture of the Corporation – though it was clear from the off that Haley, only 42, had no intention whatsoever of paying attention to customary traditions or practices within the Beeb.
His first, and greatest, achievement was to sanction a complete reform of the organisation’s approach to covering the war, at that point about to move into its most critical phase: the Allied re-occupation of Europe. “The reporting of the invasion will be one of the biggest and most responsible the BBC has ever faced,” he declared in a memo fired off days after his arrival. “We shall be judged by our success or failure for years to come.” A hasty overhaul of the Beeb’s entire news gathering operation ensued, including the creation (a whole five years since hostilities had began) of the War Reporting Unit, so that when D-Day arrived in June 1944 BBC correspondents were, remarkably, attached to every principal flank of attack across the whole continent, on land, sea and in the air.
The subsequent documentation of the invasion and eventual defeat of Nazi Germany was a landmark in the development of broadcast news, and secured near-global reputations for reporters like Richard Dimbleby, Frank Gillard and Godfrey Talbot. However the minute the war ended in May 1945, Haley promptly ordered the disbandment of all the apparatus he’d hustled into existence, sacked a swathe of reporters and closed the bulk of the Beeb’s news gathering operation. It transpired Haley had merely suspended his Fleet Street loyalties for the duration of the war; now he was determined that newspapers should regain their position as the country’s principal source for making and breaking news. “It is no part of the BBC’s function to become another newspaper,” he boomed. As such, the organisation would return to sourcing its news solely from established press agencies.
This was a devastating blow to many in the Corporation: the clock was being turned back, at the very point when the Beeb entertained more fondness amongst the population than ever before. Ignoring all protests, Haley then embarked on a new crusade: the promotion of the BBC as patron of high art and learning. He oversaw the creation of the Third Programme (penning a pompous editorial heralding its launch in Radio Times) and made a number of speeches asserting the Corporation’s mission to “improve cultural and ethical standards”. Popular shows on the Light Programme were tolerated but not encouraged. Haley was more than willing to slash music and variety output in the freezing winter of 1947 in order to fulfil a request from the Postmaster General to “save a very large amount of precious coal.”
Coverage of domestic politics all but disappeared, and current affairs producer Grace Wyndham Goldie had to fight to even get a results programme for the 1950 General Election on the air. In fact, the BBC’s television service existed virtually in spite of rather than because of Haley, who never overcame a suspicion of what he dismissed as merely “an extension of sound broadcasting.” Some admired his swagger and self-confidence, but many distrusted his motives and disliked his loftiness and disdain. Few were surprised when he quit in September 1952 to become editor of The Times, another job he stubbornly clung to for ages (until 1966).
The first DG post-Reith to spend a substantial period at the top, William Haley fell victim to the same curse that blighted his illustrious predecessor: an inability to tolerate progress. Although he did bequeath his successors the idea of the BBC Board of Management, which he devised to operate along the lines of a newspaper editorial board, it was a massive stroke of good fortune Haley left just before the Beeb had to face the arrival of ITV.
OTT rating: 9/10 (until May 1945); 1/10 (for everything else)
6. Ian Jacob (1952 – 59)
“I was shown lists of communists in the BBC. A relative of mine was actually on the list because he had a communist wife.”
“I see you have to appoint a new Director-General,” wrote Winston Churchill, then Prime Minister, to the Chairman of the BBC in the autumn of 1952. “That is of course entirely a matter for you, not for me. But I would have no objection to your appointing my old friend Ian Jacob.”
A few weeks later, the 53-year-old former Lieutenant-General, Military Assistant Secretary to the War Cabinet and most recently Director of the BBC’s Overseas Services was duly installed at the head of the Corporation, with not the slightest whisper of anything unseemly having gone on in the backrooms of Broadcasting House. So began the tenure of the Beeb’s first genuinely charismatic, personable and good-humoured DG – someone who relished living and breathing the world of broadcasting, and who enjoyed passing on his passion for the BBC to anyone with whom he came into contact.
Jacob made no attempt to hide his establishment credentials – he’d accompanied Churchill to all the main Allied summits during World War II – or resist the tendency to treat his staff as if troops under his command. On one visit to the current affairs studios at Lime Grove all employees were expected to fall into line as if a coterie of guards under review. He was also fascinated by the possibility of the Corporation entertaining a network of Soviet insurgents. Yet for all his bluster Jacob was totally unfazed by the pace or nature of change in 1950s telecommunications. He actually proved a calming, morale-boosting leader in the anxious, turbulent years immediately after ITV’s launch in 1955 when BBC audiences haemorrhaged and legions of workers seemed poised to defect to the new commercial companies.
Most importantly of all, in stark contrast to his predecessor he readily endorsed the development of the Beeb’s television service alongside that of radio, going so far as to record his enthusiasm in a de facto mission statement proclaimed in June 1953. Transmissions were to be immediately extended to reach 97% of the population, Jacob proudly declaimed; the amount of programming would be increased, an in-vision news service introduced, and colour TV experiments stepped up. Though he, along with almost everyone at the Beeb, underestimated just how drastic an effect the arrival of ITV would have on the Corporation’s audiences, by the end of the decade the fight back was underway with spending on TV output equalling that of radio for the first time.
Blessed with lashings of that familiar fustiness evident in all ex-military types – even he was taken in by Panorama’s famous “spaghetti trees” edition – Jacob also had a keen eye for the populist. He personally encouraged the idea of in-vision weather forecasting after overhearing someone idly discussing the notion at a lunch party, and was more than happy to pen a short piece marking BBC TV’s 21st birthday for Radio Times. In fact, he was really the first DG to attain the status of national celebrity, even meriting mentions on The Goon Show (“Here’s a model of Ian Jacob. Let’s stick pins in it!”) Above all Jacob laid the foundations for the creative and cultural explosion that would grip the Corporation throughout the 1960s, and when he retired on New Year’s Eve 1959 held that rare distinction of being one of only a very few DGs to have left the BBC in a demonstrably better state than when he arrived.
OTT rating: 7/10
7. Hugh Carleton Greene (1960 – 69)
“We have a duty to take account of the changes in society, to be ahead of public opinion rather than to wait upon it.”
Feted as one of the greatest DG’s of all time, Hugh Carleton Greene began the job with no great plan for upending decades of convention and deference; he was appointed more for his deft handling of one of the most delicate departments, News and Current Affairs, and an absence of any other suitable candidates.
Steeled by the experience of serving as Berlin correspondent for The Daily Telegraph in Nazi Germany, then emboldened by being handed the same patch to patrol as Head of the Beeb’s German Service, it was Greene’s force of character rather than political convictions that had the greatest resonance across the Corporation. Certainly no laidback liberal nor freethinking radical, Greene nonetheless had the wherewithal to both accommodate and defend exponents of progressive, challenging ideals within the BBC, believing that was simply something the BBC was there to do. If it made mistakes, at least it was trying, experimenting, and moving forwards. Such a precarious – and often preposterous – situation was chiefly possible thanks to Greene’s personality, and not because he was sitting in Broadcasting House drawing up tracts of revolutionary prose.
Ian Jacob had cleared the way for a successor that could be a trailblazing inspiration, and Greene relished the challenge of continuing the Beeb’s expansion: to a second TV channel, new national and local radio services, and finally to colour television. Yet like all DG’s he could never be totally his own man. He was impishly outspoken – “Commercially controlled television tends in the long run to undermine the intelligence” – but cancelled That Was The Week That Was under establishment pressure. He encouraged his department heads to follow their own devices, but ended up having to defend just as much self-indulgence as substance. He deliberately spited Mary Whitehouse, snapping up an oil painting depicting her with five breasts, then had to deal with endless counter-productive and damaging publicity as the woman marshaled her forces: “If you were to ask me to name the one man who more than anybody else had been responsible for the moral collapse in this country,” she boomed, “I would name Greene.”
He also made a somewhat undignified farewell, resigning in protest at the increasingly interventionist attitude of the Chairman Charles Hill, then shamelessly consenting to come back to serve as a Governor. Greene’s death in 1987 was marked by glowing obituaries – “the man who made the modern BBC” – but for all his exuberance, compassion and generosity he trod an often hazardously fine line between triumph and traumatism. Fortunately for him, and for the nation, luck was on his side.
OTT rating: 9/10
8. Charles Curran (1969 – 77)
“The BBC is biased in favour of parliamentary democracy.”
Just as popular history has tended to elevate Hugh Carleton Greene to a position of unimpeachable greatness, so it’s often served to condemn his successor Charles Curran to the role of hapless, grey buffoon, obsessed with undoing all the good work of his forerunner and championing all that was reactionary. This is really very unfair. Anyone would’ve had a tough job following such a haughty and impassioned figure as Greene, and Curran’s position was made even more awkward by the continuing presence of his predecessor on the board of Governors, plus Charles Hill as Chairman: the most hands-on, interfering person to hold that position so far.
Things improved immensely when Hill was replaced with the gnomish academic Michael Swann, with whom Curran enjoyed an instant rapport. They joined forces to fight endless battles against both Labour and Tory Governments determined to rebuke the Corporation and exact punitive financial and structural cutbacks. Fluent in several languages, Curran also played a vital role in personally promoting the Beeb around the world, the first DG to recognise the worth in being seen to traverse the globe as ambassador for first-class broadcasting.
Curran had a vast career working in the BBC, having joined in 1947 as a talks producer before methodically moving up the ladder to become Director of External Broadcasting by 1967. He relished facts and figures, memorising huge tracts of radio frequencies and BBC staff hierarchies. Yet although deeply committed to championing the Corporation and all it stood for, his quiet and refined demeanour was frequently mistaken for timidity. Curran couldn’t help but pale in comparison with some of the giant management egos then in residence at the BBC, such as Huw Wheldon, Paul Fox and David Attenborough. Then there were the charges of stuffiness, which when viewed out of context can be ascribed to the behaviour of a stickler for rules, but in the aftermath of the Greene era seemed prim and even cowardly: presiding over the dismissal of Kenny Everett for a crack at the Transport Minister’s wife, and penning letters to Mary Whitehouse apologising for an “exaggerated depiction of violence” in Doctor Who.
It’s this erring on the side of caution that, both then and now, most counted against Curran and his standing as DG. Alongside the obsession with convention and pedantry, however, came numerous instances of the devotion and zeal the man held for the Corporation: writing sleeve notes for an LP celebrating 50 years of the BBC in 1972; turning up at the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest to present the winner’s trophy; and enlisting Huw Wheldon on a hilarious mission to attend a late night meeting with Harold Wilson’s lawyer, Lord Goodman, to sort out the furore caused by the documentary Yesterday’s Men, which ended with the pair stumbling around Portland Place in the pitch dark with a flashlight desperately searching for the eminent peer’s address.
While sceptical of the progressive tendencies within the BBC – “We are all Marxists now,” he remarked dryly in 1970 – Curran was never intolerant of them. Appointed for his surefootedness and steady nerve, on retirement in September 1977 he left behind a vastly expanded and hugely respected institution at the peak of its so-called golden age.
OTT rating: 7/10
9. Ian Trethowan (1977 – 82)
“I defy anyone to sit in the chair of the Director-General and not be moved by a sense of history. Even the cheerfully mischievous inventions of Terry Wogan underline how special a position it is.”
The most inspired internal appointment the BBC Governors have ever made, Ian Trethowan was easily the most famous man to have assumed the mantle of DG so far. He was also the most professionally qualified. He’d just served almost a decade at the top of the Corporation’s management, but was best known to the country from his time as one of the Beeb’s resident TV political pundits, dispensing avuncular commentary throughout the 1960s in the form of reports from Westminster, General Election results programmes, and in particular a sterling performance the night that Kennedy was shot.
Compounding his already impressive CV was a period spent in commercial TV (at ITN) and print journalism; respect for and from almost everyone else working in the top jobs in broadcasting; and hugely sympathetic political contacts that proved vital in resolving a spate of typical late-’70s industrial and financial crises. In fact, such was his multiplicity of talents even a stubborn and suspicious a presence as Robin Day approved of him, especially his skill in dealing with the endless union wranglings and strikes that seemed to then be increasingly punctuating the day-to-day operations of the Beeb.
In heading off these and other nasty crises – such as that surrounding coverage of the IRA “siege” of Carrickmore, and later the Falklands war – Trethowan was able to play his greatest ace of all: his infectious charm, which time had confirmed to be just as manifest off screen as on camera. Intensely engaging and comradely, he was the first really approachable DG the Corporation had ever employed. Strolling around TV Centre or Broadcasting House, anyone from senior managers to programme researchers to technical engineers seemed able to engage him in amiable chitchat, earnest debate or a bit of gossip. His own broadcasting experience made it easy for him to slip between the contrasting worlds of the studio floor and the boardroom, and was crucial in neutering the torrent of criticism piled on the BBC in the Annan Report of 1977; preventing the Beeb tumbling off air over Christmas 1978 due to industrial action; and renewing the Corporation’s Charter through to 1996.
Most famously, Trethowan’s trademark affability won him a permanent place in Terry Wogan’s armoury of Radio 2 breakfast show whimsy. As such the nation was regaled with repeated sightings of the DG “just putting in his dentures” or being spied in, as Trethowan himself self-deprecatingly documented in his autobiography, “extremely undignified and risible situations.” But he didn’t mind one bit. “It seemed to me that Terry’s joking helped in a small way to humanise an office which must otherwise seem very remote to ordinary listeners.” What a gentleman.
He always cited the most important job of the DG was “picking people”: assembling, grooming and promoting the right talent. Delegation was vital to the effective operating of the BBC: there had to be absolute trust and support both ways, from top down and bottom up, or else a Corporation as influential and long-established as the Beeb would simply fall apart. Trethowan was articulate and adept enough to forever insist upon and practice such loyalty. His immediate successors, to the BBC’s detriment, were not.
OTT rating: 8/10
10. Alasdair Milne (1982 – 87)
“I’ve resigned, and I’m off home.”
When the Board of Governors sought to replace Ian Trethowan, despite Alasdair Milne (as Deputy Director-General and Managing Director of Television) being the obvious successor, they still went ahead and placed advertisements in the newspapers seeking “recommendations and applications”. Intent on highlighting the absurdity of this situation, Bill Cotton went along for an interview, not to put himself forward for the role but solely to “recommend” Milne. The bemused Governors eventually gave Milne the post he’d been tipped for ever since joining the Beeb in 1954, but their deliberations uncannily portended five years of unprecedented – and wholly unforeseen – turbulence that would ruin the man’s career.
Milne had shot up the BBC ladder, working to create Tonight, That Was The Week That Was and The Great War before serving time as Controller, Scotland and Director of Programmes, Television. Neither a visionary in the mould of Greene, or a networker like his immediate predecessor, as DG Milne inspired only qualified loyalty from his staff: a situation that evolved out of the man’s own enigmatic personality. He addressed other colleagues as “Boy”, preferred settling awkward personnel issues over a glass of whisky, and had a very small, tight circle of friends. Michael Grade, as Controller of BBC1 and Director of Programmes, was only invited to his office twice in three years – and one of those was to be interviewed for Milne’s job.
But Milne adored the BBC, and managed to build one of the best ever management teams the organisation had ever had, with figures such as Grade, Cotton and David Hatch heading up a team who’d spent up to four decades mastering their craft and serving the Corporation. Trouble was looming, however, in the shape of an anti-BBC lobby more spiteful and sustained in its criticism than ever before, regardless of the fact the Beeb was delivering some of its finest ever drama, comedy, current affairs, children’s and factual output. When the machinery of BBC governance, very carefully and smoothly oiled by Charles Curran and Ian Trethowan, became unstuck, everything reached a head and relations between the Governors and the Beeb’s management fell into pieces.
A sequence of controversies, mistakes, misjudgments and bad luck pock-marked Milne’s tenure as DG. Some were revisits to old ground trod by Trethowan (Northern Ireland), Hugh Carleton Greene (standards of morality) and even Reith himself (the point of the licence fee). But others were unavoidably contemporary. OTT documents elsewhere the terrible catalogue of misfortune that blighted the Corporation in the mid-’80s. In short, the Governors, led from 1986 by the menacing Marmaduke Hussey, saw everything as being the fault of Milne personally, and became obsessed with contriving his departure.
In one sense Milne was responsible: he was the editor-in-chief, accountable for everything broadcast, transmitted and published in the BBC’s name. But a figurehead is not the same as a scapegoat. To ascribe Milne culpability for all the Beeb’s failures was as ludicrous as giving him sole credit for all its successes. When it came to the fight, however, Milne simply didn’t have the stamina to prolong his survival. His lifelong preference for negotiation and compromise over fortitude and aggression ultimately accelerated his own fate.
In the end Hussey and his deputy Joel Barnett virtually removed Milne themselves, collaring him after a Board meeting on 29 January 1987 and, presenting themselves as “men of honour”, ordered him out, agreeing to dress the entire charade up as a resignation. A flummoxed Milne made no pretence of objecting, or of wishing to consult colleagues over the legitimacy of his dismissal. This same passivity permeates Milne’s autobiography, where not only does he leave the circumstances surrounding his sacking to the very last few pages, but chooses to sum up the pivotal, dreadful confrontation with Hussey and Barnett in just five words (“What terrible people, I thought”).
By any measure, Milne’s exit was a tragedy. His successors worked hard to haste his total expunging from the BBC’s history – a process the man, with typical perversity, seemed happy to encourage. Disappearing into almost total obscurity, Milne still hasn’t revealed precisely what happened that day in January 1987. His name, and work, was all-too quickly forgotten, but not just thanks to the passing of time: those forces who had chased him out of the BBC re-focused everyone’s attention away from Milne’s demise by perpetuating, not healing, the rancour.
OTT rating: 7/10
11. Michael Checkland (1987 – 92)
“I don’t know why they all think Birt’s so clever. He’s only got a third-class degree in engineering.”
Right from the off, Michael Checkland’s tenure as Director-General was doomed. His appointment was the result of a fudged compromise foisted on a bewildered Board of Governors by a Chairman fizzing with the exhilaration of having got clean away with axing Alasdair Milne. Nobody had expected, or indeed wanted, Checkland to get the job. Hussey then insisted the new DG appoint a high-profile Deputy to sort out news and current affairs, preferably David Dimbleby – his own personal choice for the top job. Checkland thought he could neutralise this threat by hiring someone else instead – only to find himself landed with a number two, John Birt, even more desperate to replace him than the erstwhile Panorama front man.
Things went from bad to worse when Checkland tried to stamp his authority on the Corporation in a debut speech to staff. Unfortunately his two key themes, the idea of the BBC as a “billion-pound business” and of wanting to see the organisation “slimmed-down”, instantly alienated 95% of the Corporation. So began a painfully turbulent few years, with spite, jealousy and rupture flowering all over the place as Checkland stumbled time and again to curb the excesses and enthusiasms of his own Chairman and Deputy, neither of whom he trusted, and neither of whom trusted him.
His residency certainly wasn’t helped by fall-out to the numerous crises of the latter Milne years, nor the Government’s predatory attitude towards broadcasting reform. Yet Checkland never seemed able to articulate or sustain a coherent strategy for rebutting charges of wastefulness and low morale, or fighting tumbling ratings in the face of increased competition from cable and satellite services. The Governors hated him for not being tough enough; the staff despised him for being too authoritarian and remote; and the management grew incensed by his lily-livered unwillingness to exert the necessary authority over Hussey, Birt, or indeed anybody.
It all added up to a desperately dreadful state of affairs, rendered all the more regrettable by the fact that before he’d become DG Checkland had enjoyed almost the completely opposite reputation. He’d been respected for his mastery of accounting in his post as Director of Resources (“Michael Chequebook”), and greatly admired for his ability to rustle up cash from obscure places just when the Corporation faced another financial crisis. Indeed, he was another BBC lifer, having joined in 1964 as a Senior Assistant in the Cost Department. In the end, however, he was simply the wrong man for the most important job of all. The final insult was having to serve his last year as DG with Birt already appointed as his successor. He bowed out with a shockingly vitriolic performance at a Royal Television Society conference, slamming the Governors and Hussey for thinking “FM” stood for “Fuzzy Monsters.” A pity he was never able to show such energy and passion during the previous five years.
OTT rating: 1/10
12. John Birt (1993 – 2000)
“I am a man from another world.”
Given that Hussey had accorded John Birt pretty much free reign to re-cast the BBC in his own image from the day of his arrival, the man’s pre-ordained accession from Deputy to full-time Director-General merely marked an extension and escalation of conflict, rather than the outbreak of new hostilities. Nonetheless, Birt chose to herald his promotion with a familiarly-pompous and badly-written mission statement. The new DG pondered, “Are we ever prey to clichéd thought, received wisdom or inward-looking perspectives?” It seemed the very philosophy, never mind functioning, of the BBC was now up for appraisal. And in Birt’s eyes, the entire organisation was to be found desperately wanting.
At the heart of Birt’s tenure as Director-General was a contradiction never satisfactorily explained. Here was a man who, while testifying in public of his admiration for the institution he had inherited, never stopped acting as if he hated it. If he loved the BBC, the argument went, why was Birt doing so much to destroy it? Could he not see the damage he was causing? Of course, Birt saw something, but in his eyes it wasn’t damage: it was the unavoidable pain of prodding a lumbering organisation forwards, forcing it to reform and adapt and prepare for a new century.
The fact was the BBC had already been evolving and reforming prior to Birt’s entrance; indeed, it had been ever since 1922, sometimes at the reluctance of its boss, at other times at their behest. The attempt by Birt to push an institution of tens of thousands of employees into one single direction was also nothing new, but the manner in which he executed his grand plan – the steely pronouncements, the fascination with management doctrines, the stifling of criticism – was utterly unheard of, and intensely destructive.
Friends and colleagues repeatedly sought to emphasise how much of a warm man Birt was in private, and how the endless abuse and derision heaped on his endeavours left him hurt. Yet the more the plaudits came, the more hollow they sounded. Circumstances invited remorseless, high-profile ridicule, and Birt’s team seemed oblivious to the number of examples of lunacy they were supplying. Management conferences were staged at luxurious locations chosen not, apparently, for their opulence but for having, according to a press officer, “the right number of electrical sockets.” It was cheaper for BBC researchers to visit bookshops and for sound engineers to pop down to HMV rather than shell out the cost of ordering up resources from the Corporation’s own libraries. At one stage Birt wanted to close down the Elstree studios and move EastEnders to Birmingham, failing to realise this would mean re-building an entire market square at the cost of millions. Then there was “Armanigate”, the storm over the revelation that Birt wasn’t even a member of BBC staff, and appeared to be indulging in suspect accounting to fund his wardrobe of posh suits.
People who spoke out against all of this were instantly derided, promoting even more of a climate of paranoia. Birt’s pet projects always sounded demented, the products of a man consumed with a mania to re-order everything according to some bit of analysis or other he’d read in The Economist. The “Producer Choice” scheme set the Corporation at war with itself, departments fighting each other for airtime, budgets and staff. Then came the division of everything and everyone into BBC Broadcast and BBC Production, and yet more squabbling, bullying and mistrust. Amidst the “fear and loathing”, as Dennis Potter labelled it, it was incredible that programmes as good as Our Friends in the North and One Foot in the Grave were actually made, and that people as talented as Alan Yentob and Jim Moir stuck around.
Ultimately Birt succeeded in turning the entire BBC into an unsavoury, unwieldy extension of his own personality, awkwardly accommodating those who dared to be different, shamelessly suckling those who were prepared to play ball. Yet, incredibly, out of the turmoil emerged the blueprint for the Beeb’s future: News 24, BBC Choice and BBC Knowledge. A reeling, exhausted Corporation would later rescue these channels from their Birt-devised templates and re-invent them as the foundation for the BBC’s digital strategy. But that was for another day, and another DG, someone who could restore morale, rebuild egos and make the BBC fun again. Of all John Birt’s failings, his last was his most significant: that of preventing Greg Dyke from taking over as his replacement.
OTT rating: 2/10
13. Greg Dyke (2000 – 04)
“If I was asked to go back, of course I would.”
It’s not too soon to state that Greg Dyke was one of the best DG’s the BBC has ever had. Suppose he’d suddenly chosen to quit at the end of 2003, feeling bored or in search of a new challenge; he’d still merit the same degree of unfettered veneration as that which broke out when he resigned in the wake of the Hutton Report in January 2004.
Rarely has there been a Director-General able to make his mark on the Corporation so constructively and rapidly – a feat all the more admirable given the appalling state of the Beeb which he inherited. That he was able to turn things round so quickly is borne out by the fact that, despite exiting the post a good three years or so before he’d planned to, his personality is writ large in whatever corner of the Corporation you look. The same was true of his predecessor, of course, but Birt’s was a negative, obstructive occupation. Dyke’s was characterised by that same concoction of authority and joviality that has underpinned all the great DGs (Jacob, Greene, Trethowan). He pulled the Corporation inside out, but unlike Birt was able to win immediate support for his actions thanks to a mixture of elements: an easy rapport with staff; the inquisitiveness and unconventionality of an outsider; a fine line in good jokes; and because he wasn’t John Birt.
He was, at heart, an enduring exponent of the need for genuinely entertaining mainstream TV. He shared a belief with similarly eminent figures (but who’d failed to make DG) such as Bill Cotton and Michael Grade that there was absolutely no point in defending a BBC that nobody watched or listened to: the licence fee, that touchstone of the Beeb’s identity and purpose, demanded the Corporation provide a service the public both wanted and needed. You could only educate and inform as well as entertain audiences if the audiences were there in the first place. The future of the Corporation lay with its owners: the general public, and not teams of pollsters, focus group analysts or, heaven forbid, policy advisors.
So out went the internal market and “Producer Choice” and the rampant paranoia. In came vitality, straight-talking, and a healing of the running sores of the past decade. But it wasn’t all charisma and congeniality: Dyke had plans and schemes, bold visions and energetic ambitions. Think of what he achieved in just four years: totally overhauling the reputation of BBC1, leaving it ahead of ITV for the first time in decades; re-energising local radio broadcasting; enabling the Beeb’s portfolio of online services to become the best in the world; saving the future of digital TV through Freeview; being the only real chief executive in British television to stand up to Rupert Murdoch; scything away layers of pointless Birtian bureaucracy; and making the BBC a place where people clearly enjoyed working again and loved producing programmes. He even turned up on screen the night of the BBC power failure in June 2000 in shirt-sleeves to tell us all personally what’d been going on.
Then came the Hutton Report. Having conceded he’d lost the confidence of the Governors to go on, and conscious of the danger in becoming the embodiment of the BBC rather than its chief exponent, Dyke bowed out. The esteem in which his staff held him was desperately tangible on the day of his emotional departure. John Birt’s lieutenant Will Wyatt once wrote that no DG could ever expect to be carried jubilantly around on the shoulders of their staff. Greg Dyke was.
OTT rating: 9/10