The trouble with Mr Dyke is his honesty

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The Independent Culture
LAST WEEK, I met an old acquaintance in the street who told me that he had just been to lunch at the Connaught Hotel - proof, we both agreed, that he was getting on in the world. I had forgot at the time that I, too, had once enjoyed that special privilege.

But I was reminded of the occasion when, on Thursday night, the Tory Party's broadcasting spokesman expressed the fervent view that the director- general of the BBC should not be closely associated with any political party. For back in 1970, one of my companions in the early morning at Carlos Place, was Ian Trethowan - the then managing director of BBC Radio, and soon to occupy the office to which Greg Dyke has been appointed. He had been brought along by Geoffrey Tucker, one of Ted Heath's advisers on publicity, public relations and opinion polls.

The purpose of the breakfast was to consider ways in which the British people could be persuaded to support membership of what is now the European Union, which we then called the Common Market - Tory government policy which was, wrongly in my view, opposed by the Labour Party.

Mr Trethowan (as he then was) promised to do all he could to help.

I - and a couple of other Labour pro-marketeers who witnessed the scene - decided not to attend any more meetings. We were not particularly high minded about broadcasting propriety, but we wanted to make a distinctive Labour case for Europe. And, apart from us, all the breakfasters had been enthusiastic "friends of Ted".

We were left wondering if such meetings were held during General Election campaigns.

Six years later, Sir Ian became director-general of the BBC. That announcement was also made on a Thursday. I remember the day of the week because a note was passed into the Cabinet meeting, and Jim Callaghan, the Prime Minister, read out the news.

He was greeted with groans of mock horror and cries of bogus grief. We all knew whose side Sir Ian was on, regarded him as an amiable, able and honest broadcaster - and were far too grown up to make a public fuss about his appointment. I did not issue a public statement saying that the new DG (whose life as a journalist began with Conservative-inclined newspapers in Yorkshire) should not be appointed because he had once been prepared to use his influence against Labour Party policy.

Perhaps I should have done. For a director-general who attempts to influence national opinion, quietly from within the BBC, is a far greater threat to democracy than one who openly admits his party allegiance before appointment. Dyke has come out of the political closet, and thus enabled the humbugs to say that, although his integrity is beyond question, his donation to Labour makes him look less than impartial. If he had not been so open in his support nobody would have complained.

There would have been grumbles in the Carlton Club, but William Hague would not have made his schoolboy intervention. In fact the honesty of Dyke's position is the Tory's insurance policy.

It is a guarantee against breakfast at the Connaught Hotel.

But it is not conclusive proof that he will be a good director-general - a subject on which few of us have any firm opinion because the argument about his appointment has concerned his politics, rather than his professional potential.

I am far more worried about Roland Rat than I am about the risk to the BBC's objectivity. The tradition of honest reporting - going back beyond the Suez affair in 1956 to the General Strike of 1926 - is exaggerated but indestructible. The corporation will remain as it always was - susceptible to a limited degree of political bullying and ministerial persuasion, but determined to stand firm against any serious threat to its independence.

The real question is: "Will Greg Dyke improve the quality of the output?"

He could begin by reducing the number of repeats and abandoning altogether the habit of insulting viewers' intelligence by calling reruns "another chance to see". The other patronising euphemism, "The best of...", is television- speak for another import from commercial television - bits torn out of old broadcasts and strung together with a barely relevant commentary.

Indeed, most of the programmes that have dragged BBC downmarket are the product of the same Gresham's Law - the high standards of public service broadcasting driven down by competing for viewing figures with channels where the values are determined by the demands of deodorant advertisers. And Greg Dyke comes from that tradition.

However, unlike William Hague and the Conservative Party, I'm willing to believe that the new director-general can, and will, live down his past.

I do not even demand that he resigns as a director of Manchester United Football Club - where, much to his credit, he opposed the sale of the club to Rupert Murdoch's interests. But, during the weeks which he spends reassuring the Conservatives about his impartiality, I hope that he will spare a moment to convince the rest of us about the sort of BBC which he wants to see. Nobody doubts that he is a good manager. But that is the assurance which we were given when John Birt was appointed.

What we want now is a director general who believes in high quality broadcasting. Greg Dyke may be that man. But until the always fatuous and often bogus complaints about his donations to the Labour Party die down, that aspect of his career and character will not receive much attention.

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