Obituary: Richard Dunn

RICHARD DUNN was one of the last great proponents of public service broadcasting in commercial television, and will be remembered most for his defence of the ITV system against the depredations of the Thatcher government in the late 1980s and his defiance against the same enemy over Thames Television's controversial documentary Death on the Rock in 1988.

Ironically, for a charming, diplomatic and much-liked man, almost all of his years in power were about confrontation and adversity - but then, as he often told anyone who would listen, he did win a boxing Blue at Cambridge.

He joined mainstream broadcasting at Thames from a local cable company, Swindon Viewpoint, which he had managed in the early 1970s. A tiny operation, which he described as "one man and his dog - and luckily, his future wife", Swindon Viewpoint was a largely happy experience, made more so by bringing him together with Jigga, who was first his assistant, then his wife, and ultimately his most profound supporter and champion.

It gave Dunn a chance to learn about the business of television from its basics and also brought him into contact with Howard Thomas, then chairman of Thames Television, ITV's figurehead company.

Thomas, determined to find room for the 34-year-old Dunn at Thames, invented a role for him as assistant to Jeremy Isaacs, the much-respected Director of Programmes. Within two years Dunn had become Director of Production, responsible for the company's technological programme-making resources and personnel.

He immediately encountered the frustrations of union management, the complexities of which had defeated ITV companies throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. At that time it was easier - and cheaper - to concede militant demands than to fight and risk the chance of being taken off air, an ultimate deterrent that unions like ACTT and NATKE were never reluctant to offer.

Dunn, still new to ITV, and fresh from the unconfined working practices of Swindon Viewpoint, was determined to bring sense and flexibility to Thames and developed a strategy to bring it about. By the summer of 1984, he had put together the necessary pieces to implement the strategy - a resolute board lead by Bryan Cowgill, a stockpile of programming, new easy-to-use transmission equipment and a management team trained to use it.

Confrontation did not have to be sought - it was offered by the unions on a weekly basis. Dunn simply selected the right issue and the right time, and let the ACTT lead themselves out of the building and on to the street.

Thames's first emergency transmissions stunned the strikers, not just outside Thames's Euston headquarters but throughout the industry, and within two weeks, the moderates outweighed the militants, they all went back unconditionally, and a watershed victory had been achieved - some years before Margaret Thatcher arrogantly and incorrectly labelled ITV "the last bastion of restrictive practices". From the moment Dunn's management service hit the screens, ITV's industrial relationships were never as bad again (except at TV-AM, which fought its own battle a few years later).

Therefore, when Bryan Cowgill left Thames in 1985, Dunn was the clear successor. He inherited a company with a few internal problems, the most significant of which was its owners reluctance to stay in television. Within a month of taking the new job at the top, Dunn found that Thorn- EMI and Rediffusion had reached preliminary agreement to sell Thames to Carlton Communications, then primarily a facilities company. From that point on, confrontation followed confrontation. The Carlton bid was seen off - for the time at least - as Dunn marshalled public opinion behind the Independent Broadcasting Association, who rejected the proposal, but Thorn-EMI and Rediffusion's joint lack of enthusiasm for television was a weakness that was to affect Thames for the rest of its life as a broadcaster.

The first result was the partial flotation of the company in 1986, enforced by the IBA, announced in the face of general disinterest by the City, and met with some cynicism among ITV colleagues. Dunn, who had begun building a new young Thames executive team, transformed opinion in both areas, and a clever marketing campaign resulted in the issue being 25 times over- subscribed, and a rush of ITV companies following Thames to the market.

Facing down the unions and encouraging public - albeit partial - ownership should have endeared Dunn to the Thatcher administration, but by 1987 the natural political distrust of broadcasters had been focused by Professor Alan Peacock on to ITV. His committee's proposals had been meant to deal with advertising on the BBC. Instead, they included such radical suggestions as the auctioning of ITV franchises to the highest bidder, which appealed to the Prime Minister's sense of fair play, and she and her ministers set about systematically rubbishing the old system. ITV, then as now a collection of voices speaking different messages, was helpless under the attack.

In 1988, the companies elected Dunn as Chairman of the ITV Association, to focus all their attentions on the political threat, and to act as figurehead and spokesman for them all. Dunn united them, however temporarily, and set about the diplomatic confrontation with the style and energy by which he will remembered.

Ultimately, he and ITV were unsuccessful in deflecting the Government, but then so were the many moderate voices within government, and all chance of conciliation and compromise disappeared with the greatest confrontation of them all.

In March 1988, SAS officers shot three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar. Many sections of the media - at least those not to the right of centre - questioned not so much the correctness of the actions, as the story the Government put out in explanation. Thames Television's current affairs programme This Week was among the doubters. Death on the Rock found witnesses who offered versions of the events that differed significantly from the official stories. The Government demanded that the IBA ban the programme. The IBA, to their great credit, watched it, judged it to be fair and allowed it to proceed.

Dunn, and his chairman Sir Ian Trethowan, backed their programme-makers totally and publicly, and throughout the nine months of right-wing vituperation that followed, culminating in an intensive independent investigation of the programme, that support never wavered.

Privately Dunn knew that Thatcher was, in her words, "beyond fury", and that Thames's resistance to her view must have some effect, but he defended the opinion that a fair society should be able to hear all views, and believed that his programme-makers had acted properly and professionally - a view that was substantiated in the findings of the independent Windlesham Inquiry.

He knew that the affair had hardened Thatcher's views of ITV's indiscipline, and later publicly spoke about the effect it had on her 1990 Broadcasting Bill. But equally, he knew that his defence of the programme and his team had been correct and he never regretted it.

Three years later, Thames was the biggest and most visible loser in the new franchise system, outbid by Carlton in an auction that allowed no consideration of Thames's impressive achievements. A thousand of Dunn's staff lost their jobs, Dunn lost his biggest battle.

However, he and his truncated team achieved what had never been done before - survival after the loss of franchise, as Thames became Britain's largest independent producer, with programmes sold to all the UK's major broadcasters, and several of the satellite and cable channels as well.

Two of them, UK Gold and UK Living (now UKTV and Living) were born from discussions Dunn initiated the month after the franchise loss was announced. They were start-up channels, in which the new Thames invested time, effort, programmes and facilities - but no cash.

When Pearson, the media group that bought Thames in 1993, sold its stakes in the two channels early this year, they realised in excess of pounds 70m. This profit gave Dunn, no longer part of the company, almost as much pride and pleasure as another major investment Thames made under his leadership. Thames's stake in SES, the owners of the Astra satellite system, realised a profit of almost pounds 200m between 1987, when it was taken, and earlier this year, when it was sold.

Richard Dunn took pleasure in those business successes, and in the network of friends and colleagues around the industry, especially those with the Thames connection. However, most of his life's pleasure and his pride was taken in his family - Jigga, Andrew, William and Elizabeth.

Roy Addison

Richard Johann Dunn, television executive: born 5 September 1943; Writer and Producer, Associated British Pathe 1967-70; Executive Producer, EMI Special Films Unit 1970-72; managing director, Swindon Viewpoint Ltd 1972-76; Director of Production, Thames Television 1981-85, chief executive 1985- 95; managing director, Pearson Television Holdings 1993-95; CBE 1995; executive director, News International Television 1995-98; married 1972 Jigga Gaynor (two sons, one daughter); died Windsor, Berkshire 4 August 1998.

Comments