The BBC’s Battle of the Barons -what Tony Hall can learn from the reign of the late Alasdair Milne

Today (Friday 18th January 2013) the funeral is being held of the former BBC Director-General of the BBC, Alasdair Milne. As befits a bagpipe-playing former Gordon Highlander and Controller of BBC Scotland, the service will be at the main Church of Scotland ‘Kirk’ in London, St Columba’s in Pont Street.

Most of the newspaper obituaries of Milne have understandably focused on his tensions with Margaret Thatcher’s Government and with the BBC Governors who finally removed him after five years in 1987.But Milne’s years at the top of the BBC are also interesting for the way he chose to run the place and whether there are any lessons for the incoming Director-General Lord (Tony) Hall.

There are some similarities between the two men; BBC lifers with one career excursion, Milne to independent production, Hall to the Royal Opera House. But there are more differences, for starters Milne was arrogant, Hall is not.

The issue that connects them, and indeed all the successors and predecessors, is what a DG does about ‘the Barons’. These were and are the senior BBC executives, previously only men but now men and women, who control large chunks of BBC turf, remain publicly loyal to the concept of ‘one BBC’ but are brilliantly manipulative of the opportunities for personal fiefdom that such a massive organization inevitably creates.

Never having met Alasdair Milne myself I’ve taken the counsel of David Barlow, formerly Secretary of the BBC,a role which has always provided a perfect observation post for monitoring DGs at the ‘Third Floor Front’ of Broadcasting House (BH). He saw Milne in but had been succeeded by Patricia Hodgson by the time of the infamous Governors’ meeting when Chairman of the Governors ,Duke Hussey, showed Milne out.

David told me: ‘a Baron’s success and status was often determined not by creative achievement but by the size of his or her share of the licence fee cake. As someone once said, the BBC was a spend organization not, in those days, an earn one and this helped to determine the nature of the beast’.

BBC DGs have tried to manage the Barons in different ways.

The first was Milne’s way which, it seems, was to do a deal with them, ‘I’m a programme person too, you stay loyal to me and I won’t interfere’. This may sound surprising considering that Milne apparently had a very high opinion of his own ability to do whatever he chose to do. But not so surprising when you remember that he’d been a Baron himself, in charge of BBC TV, and that he’d grown up in a BBC which was used to feudal domains.

David Barlow’s view is that this practice goes back at least as far as when Charles Curran became the overall feudal ruler in 1969. Curran had little experience in television so did a deal with the Barons of Television Centre (TVC), especially Huw Wheldon, to keep out of their affairs. In return he would expect loyalty from them in other matters.  The next DG, Ian Trethowan, apparently did the same –he promised the succession to Alasdair Milne (which he later delivered) and left him to run TV. Trethowan also kept away from radio at BH which he had recently run and from external services at Bush House.

David Barlow remembers that when Milne was appointed as DG he broadly kept to the same rules – Aubrey Singer and Bill Cotton ran TV and Milne too also wasn’t that interested in Radio or Bush. But this regime apparently worked less well. Milne was bored with admin and missed the buzz of TVC, he was after all the first BBC DG who’d ever made big TV shows. He had major battles with his second Chairman, Stuart Young (brother of Tory minister Lord Young) who concluded together with some other Governors that Milne did not bring a coherent editorial strategy across the BBC and that in this vacuum what united the BBCmore than anything was not a programme ethic but resources –what David Barlow calls ‘the bogs, boilers and equipment’. Stuart Young died of cancer in his early 50s and was succeeded by Duke Hussey. In David Barlow’s view this emphasis on resources predominated in a divided Board under Hussey and when they fired Milne they appointed a man who knew about resources, Michael Checkland.

He provided model number two.:‘I’m not a programmes person but I will hire a deputy who is’ (enter John Birt) . The Baron who actually suggested Checkland hire Birt, Michael Grade, came to regret it as Birt,having spotted the flaw in the feudal/resources argument, saw an opportunity for another view of the corporation more to his liking. From his role of Deputy DG ,whose main responsibility was news and current affairs, he began to intervene in other key appointments at TVC and expressed views about scheduling. Birt had indeed seen that the feudal model did not handle News and Current Affairs satisfactorily – indeed different solutions had been found over the years none of them wholly worked and was much to the benefit of those of us over at ITN.

John Birt started his revolution by remedying that and as DG  developed his own solution for the battle with the Barons: ‘Tell me or my team absolutely everything that’s going on’.  At the time people compared it to the Stasi though some have since got nostalgic about it as they observed subsequent BBC crises where the centre wasn’t on top of the detail.

Model Number Four was ‘cut the crap’ –Greg Dyke’s antidote to Birtism. Staff loved the focus on creativity over control but it came a cropper when,during what became known simply as Hutton, it turned out that the centre didn’t know as much about what Dr David Kelly did or didn’t tell Andrew Gilligan about WMD as Greg thought it did.

Mark Thompson always struck me as a man who knew a lot of the detail about what was going on in a lot of BBC places and wasn’t frightened to put his boot in when necessary but Savile seems to tell us otherwise. The Pollard report suggests no great progress in inter-departmental co-operation.

Which brings us to George.

According to Lord Patten Entwistle got the job because he had a plan for sorting this problem out once and for all. The new DG certainly dispatched Baron John Smith of BBC Worldwide pretty quickly and COO Caroline Thompson wasn’t encouraged to hang around.

But we never got the chance to find out what exactly his plan was (one Baron tells me it wouldn’t have worked anyway) partly because he deliberately or accidentally didn’t know what was going on in BBC News. Bizarrely, even as George was resigning, the Chairman told us that he (and therefore presumably the next DG) would implement George’s plan anyway. I assume Lord Hall will have told Lord Patten when he took the job that he would come up with his own plan thanks very much.

Tony has the advantage of a programme background (so no Checkland style problems),a chance to appoint some Barons of his own on his own terms plus years of experience of what John Birt called ‘The Harder Path’ style of management.

But as Alasdair Milne would have told him ruefully, keep an eye on the Chairman. And that’s advice that John Birt, who like Milne had problems with Duke Hussey, would surely underline.

 

 

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