Dyke in charge: now for the real battle

Winning control of the BBC was his toughest fight. But it won't get any easier, writes Maggie Brown
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The Independent Online
A GAGGLE of journalists hanging around in the grand marble foyer of Broadcasting House last Friday morning caught their first sight of Greg Dyke since his appointment as the next BBC director-general. The balding squat figure, spotting familiar faces, left his minders and rushed across, face pink and glowing and split by an enormous grin. He pumped the men's arms and kissed the women. Ushered outside into the blazing June morning, he chatted cheerily with photographers.

Less than 10 minutes later, at a hastily convened press conference, a more subdued Dyke emerged. Under the controlled conditions the BBC press office likes to organise, the great communicator was nervous, stumbling over the odd word, careful not to depart from the set text.

It was left to Sir John Birt, demob happy, to lighten the mood by referring to the Friday lunchtime football matches they'd played at LWT and Dyke's tendency to hog the ball.

There were no Dyke one-liners and few clues about what he intended to do. Apart from his promise to meet as many of the 23,000 staff as he could during an extended handover and his pledge to act as "an enabler" to ensure the widest range of programmes, he had little to say. Perhaps the weight of the challenge to fill the job described by the chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, as the second most difficult in the land after the Prime Minister's was already starting to weigh on his shoulders.

As he spoke, the political row over his appointment, made despite his financial gifts to Labour causes, showed no sign of abating. Bland and Dyke had already offered to meet the Conservative leader, William Hague, on Friday afternoon. The meeting is expected to take place tomorrow, when Dyke plans to ask Hague to judge him on his future record.

It looks as if the party will be at pains to do that, planning to invest thousands of pounds into monitoring the BBC. Last Friday morning Peter Ainsworth, the Conservative media spokesman who was touring the TV and radio outlets, was already fuming over his treatment by Newsnight the previous night, when he'd been excluded from a discussion about Dyke involving Gerald Kaufman, a supporter. For no matter how many times Dyke reiterates his total commitment to impartiality, there is no doubt that the BBC has handed its critics a big stick to hold over its large news and current affairs operation. "We can live with it. But it won't help," said a key news and current affairs executive.

It was last Wednesday night at 11.45 that Dyke was phoned at home by the secretary to the governors of the BBC and told that he was to be the next director-general. The governors had held a lengthy meeting after publishing the annual report. They knew that the protracted and rancorous process, formally launched with headhunters in March but under debate for more than a year, could not continue. It was exposing them to public ridicule at a time when a serious debate about the licence fee was about to break.

The key, say insiders, lay in the fact that the forceful chairman, Bland, and his more emollient deputy, the working Labour peer Baroness Young, had united around Dyke. Senior people at the BBC had already realised that it was all over by lunchtime that day.

The 12 governors were not unanimous, but not all their votes held equal weight. Two powerful figures thought to be opposed to Dyke, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield and the Reverend Norman Drummond, the national governors for Northern Ireland and Scotland respectively, retire at the end of July. Bland is attempting to assure the outside world that Dyke "has the wholehearted support of the whole board of governors", despite reports of a seven-to- five split.

But Dyke's one-year rolling contract also makes him easy to drop if he fails. All this underscores Bland, whose tenure runs until March 2003, as a continuing power, if not quite the BBC's first executive chairman.

Last Friday afternoon Dyke, in only conditional control of his territory, held several meetings with key BBC executives, starting with the chief executive of BBC News and runner-up for the post, the Oxford-educated, opera-loving Tony Hall.They talked amicably, but Hall knows that Dyke dropped the once-acclaimed current affairs programme Weekend World when he ran LWT and that he has never supported protected spots for news and current affairs.

That evening Dyke went back to the security of his Pearson Television office and on to dinner with Melvyn Bragg, one of his key supporters through the leadership battle. Dyke will hold more meetings with key BBC personnel this week. Only one of the six disappointed internal candidates, the canny Alan Yentob, director of television, has issued a welcome statement. Yentob is widely thought to have held briefing meetings with Dyke earlier this year, and is bound to be harbouring hopes of promotion to deputy director-general.

But how soon can Dyke make his moves? He faces a messy transfer of power. He originally assumed that the prolonged handover envisaged by Birt, who leaves on March 31 2000, was ridiculous and would be scrapped. As he said rather pointedly on Friday, referring to his job running Pearson Television: "The moment you say you're leaving an organisation your influence is gone." To prove his point, Marjorie Scardino, his boss, rapidly grabbed the post of Pearson Television chairman from him, though he technically stays as chief executive until autumn. Dyke has had to accept that the BBC is so complex that he needs to spend time learning how it ticks. He will find it divided into large operating chunks. And his message of delegated power and an inclusive management style will find eager takers.

There are some deeply demoralised staff and disappointed barons who wanted his job. He'll need all his cunning and ruthlessness. He won't abandon all the Birtist changes: Dyke was actually the first to apply the "internal market" producer choice theory to LWT, in 1991.

But he will check the idiocies and refocus on programme-making. He does spell a retreat on excessive policy planning, strategy advisers and paper- pushing: as even Birtists agree, all these things have gone far too far. As has the split between broadcast, whose channel controllers hold the cheque books, and production, where alienated programme-makers work.

And as for the programme legacy he may leave behind? At LWT his priority was entertainment and drama. At Pearson it was quiz and drama formats, which could be sold by the mile around the world. But the BBC's range and breadth of coverage contains much that hasn't crossed his professional path before, from BBC2 adaptations of Dickens to orchestras. Even without his political baggage, he knows he has a lot still to prove.