Profile: Small screen baron sees the big picture: A low-key newcomer is taking a high profile in television. Michael Leapman on the man behind the bid for Anglia: Clive Hollick

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The Independent Online
THE DIFFERENCE between the old ITV barons and the new is seen most vividly in how Greg Dyke, chief executive of LWT, and Clive Hollick, chairman of Meridian, have behaved in the current merger frenzy.

Dyke, a former producer who would have made a fine mogul in 1930s Hollywood, has had to be restrained by what he calls his 'thought police' from giving too much away to press interviewers while he tries to defend his company from a hostile takeover bid from Granada.

Lord Hollick, a financier rather than a showman and a relative newcomer to television, remains more at home in the stronghold of the boardroom, safe from media attention. Last week, the day after announcing the friendly bid by MAI - Meridian's parent company - for Anglia, he stuck to a long-term commitment to visit New York and scorned the advice of his public relations adviser that a few face-to-face interviews might be a good idea.

His dislike of publicity verges on the pathological. A likely reason lies in the origins of his present empire - the remnants of a conglomerate created by John Bentley, a prominent Sixties financier whose strong taste for publicity did not prevent his downfall and may have hastened it.

In 1974, Hollick, then only 29, was working for Hambros, charged with taking the failed company out of bankruptcy. This made him the youngest managing director of a quoted company at the time. He recreated it as the MAI Group, eventually selling off the Mills & Allen poster-site business that gave the company its initials. Until Meridian, its main interests were in money broking - MAI is one of the largest money brokers in the world.

If Anglia's shareholders accept the unanimous view of analysts that the group's pounds 292m bid is a generous one (some say over-generous), it will mean that, little more than a year since he entered the ITV system, the undemonstrative Hollick will be the third most powerful man in it. The new entity will control 18 per cent of ITV advertising, compared with some 30 per cent for Michael Green's Carlton/Central and about 22 per cent for Granada's Gerry Robinson, if he pulls off the LWT acquisition.

'Up to this week, you'd have been hard put to say that Clive has shown a major commitment to diversifying MAI into becoming a major media company,' said a colleague.

'The Meridian bid could have been regarded just as a good punt. Now he's clearly a player, so it's a significant move.'

For all his modesty, the Anglia deal does not represent the limit of Hollick's media ambitions. He is talking to several potential partners, including Time-Warner in the United States, about mounting a bid for the Channel 5 franchise, likely to be re-offered next month by the Independent Television Commission. (It makes sense, because technical limitations of Channel 5 mean it may not be easy to pick it up in much of the Meridian region.) MAI is also in a consortium bidding for the national lottery.

Moreover, the new rules allowing common ownership of two large ITV franchises are widely seen as only a stage along the route to media deregulation. Under pressure from newspaper proprietors, the National Heritage Department has already invited submissions on relaxing the rules that limit cross-media ownership. While this has been presented chiefly as a means of letting newspaper owners acquire a slice of television, it would also work the other way.

His interest in newspapers is transparent. The son of a French polisher from Southampton, Hollick went to grammar school and joined the Labour party at 15. After graduating from Nottingham University in politics and psychology, he considered a media career before opting for the City. Now he is swinging back to his former interest.

After Robert Maxwell's death he accepted a position on the board of Mirror Group Newspapers, but left it early last year when the departure of Alastair Campbell as political editor raised doubts about the papers' continued commitment to the Labour party. Insiders say he wanted to be chairman, but when it became clear this would not be handed to him on a plate, he entered into a battle with David Montgomery, the chief executive. Hollick lost, so he left.

His ambitions to be a big player in media are separate from - and he insists unconnected with - his ambitions in politics. One of the few supporters of Labour in a senior City position, he has been an adviser to the party for some years on industrial and commercial policy. Neil Kinnock was instrumental in getting him his peerage when Hollick was still only 45, making him the youngest peer in the realm. Despite this impressive record, he lives a low-profile existence in his houses in London and the New Forest with his wife and three children.

But as a millionaire who pays himself over pounds 350,000 a year, he is certainly open to accusations of being something of a champagne socialist. His socialist image was further tarnished in 1992, when many senior members of his company were found to be receiving part of their salary in the form of gold bars in the offshore haven of Jersey. It was a tax avoidance scheme which, although legal and although Hollick himself was not a beneficiary, caused him severe embarrassment.

His decision to quit the Mirror board rather than fight Montgomery was seen by some as uncharacteristic cowardice, but it was based on sound reasoning: as a television owner he would, under present legislation, never be in a position to control the company.

But on the phone from New York on Friday, he said that for the time being his ambitions were confined to television. 'Broadcasting will keep us fully occupied for the foreseeable future,' he said.

Ever since his successful pounds 36.5m bid for the south and south-east ITV franchise, Hollick has harboured ambitions to extend his holdings. And Anglia, separated from Meridian only by the Thames Estuary, has always seemed the most natural fit. 'The areas have the same demographics, they have increasing populations of the sort of people advertisers want to reach,' he said.

Although talks between the two companies began last summer, before the relaxation in the rules was announced, Hollick would have preferred not to have launched his strike quite so soon. When Peter Brooke, the National Heritage Secretary, was consulting ITV executives last year about the rule changes, Hollick, along with Anglia's chief executive, David McCall, argued in vain that the moratorium on takeovers should be extended beyond the end of 1993 to allow the new companies time to settle in.

He has long been campaigning for the kind of full-blown review of media ownership rules on which the Government is now engaged. The present limit of two franchises, without any regard to their size, creates, he says, an 'Alice in Wonderland' situation.

He has good reason to be pleased with Meridian's performance so far. 'I'm told it's the first time a new franchise holder has increased its share of the network audience in its first year,' he says. This has been achieved in the main through strong regional programmes, which are attracting audiences 2 per cent up on those achieved by its predecessor, TVS.

'That's a good omen for Channel 5,' Hollick believes, 'because that's likely to be a series of regional stations and we've shown we know how to do it.'

He is disappointed that Meridian has not been more successful in supplying programmes for the network, and a priority after the link-up with Anglia will be to improve that performance. Its strategy has been to offer the network upmarket programmes that will play well in its own region - such as the current Richard Wilson series Under the Hammer, and the Mary Wesley drama Harnessing Peacocks.

Hollick claims no direct credit for the broadcasting successes Meridian has achieved. He is not an interventionist chairman in the Beaverbrook mould, but he does comment on the local programmes he watches at the weekend (he cannot receive Meridian at his west London home) and he continually questions items of expenditure: cost control is his forte.

He has already warned that some jobs will have to go at Anglia, although not too many in the production area, which he is keen to develop. David McCall, who has been with Anglia for 28 years and is to be made deputy chairman of MAI after the merger, says: 'We expect him to be tough. I don't see anything wrong with that.'

Somebody who has worked closely with Hollick over the years explains his boardroom style. 'He delivers his views nicely with a smile. You might regard it as fairly hard but you won't necessarily be bruised by the process.

'He's got a very good business imagination, a good radar screen. It looks a long way forward and he's prepared to take risks to develop the longer term. He's already been there for 20 years and is there for a long time to come.'

(Photograph omitted)