A safe pair of hands

As acting director-general, Mark Byford must use all his experience to steer the BBC through its darkest hours
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The Independent Online

At the end of the most momentous week of his career, Mark Byford, the acting director-general of the BBC, is surrounded by a frenzy of activity. He has just returned from taking his son to football training, his other lad needs collecting from the other side of his adopted home town and one of his three daughters is on her way out. Then he and the boys have to get to a Premiership match in time for kick-off. Life goes on for Greg Dyke's rock music-loving replacement, just as it does for the BBC itself in the wake of Lord Hutton's inquiry.

Byford, 45, has become a public figure for the first time after spending his working life in the corridors and cutting rooms of the BBC. The media spotlight has not been kind, accusing him of lacking charisma and portraying him as a "Birtist Dalek" - a damaging association with Dyke's sober and reforming predecessor who remains unpopular with many BBC staff.

The reality is that the BBC careerist's talents have been recognised by all his bosses. After joining the corporation as a holiday relief assistant he rose to become Home Editor for BBC News and Current Affairs by the age of 30; two years later, he was made a controller. Dyke himself appointed him deputy director-general in December.

"Everybody shapes you," says Byford. "Your family shapes you, your life experience shapes you and the people you work closely with and admire shape you." He makes no secret of his regard for Birt's achievements, describing him as a "fantastic strategist" with a "sensationally good" understanding of the importance of new technology. "He came to the BBC at a time when there were lots of questions being asked about where it was going and what it stood for. He had to give it very rigorous and solid direction, particularly in its journalism, and some people didn't like it," says Byford.

"He took an enormous amount of flak but stayed resolute, always saying, 'What I'm here to do is what's best for the licence-fee payers of the UK, not what's best for John Birt.' I thought that was admirable." He admired Dyke for other reasons, describing him as "incredibly dynamic and popular and great fun to work with". "Greg was a completely different character. He warmed the staff and loosened the place up."

His own qualities, he says, are rooted in his breadth of knowledge of the workings of the corporation. "When people get to know me, they realise I have worked in more areas of the BBC than probably anyone else," says Byford. "I've worked in radio, television, new media. I've worked in local, national and international. I've done news and current affairs and documentaries. I have been responsible for drama, community departments, features and sports."

Because he knows "a lot of people" at the BBC, he claims his week in charge of the organisation has not been as traumatic as might be expected, with many of the staff angry about the departure of Dyke and the BBC's grovelling apology (backed by Byford) to the Government over the David Kelly affair. "Having to go into it now, this role is surprisingly comfortable. Of course, you've got to stabilise the place at a time when it has been very seriously rocked. But when you know so many people in different areas it's an advantage, because you know how to glue the institution together."

Byford is not, however, keen to be seen merely as "a safe pair of hands", preferring to be regarded as a "tough editor" who values "loyalty" and "personal integrity". Another mantra is "inclusivity". Earlier this month, after a ground-breaking World Service season on HIV and Aids, he gathered together 120 staff and arranged for Kofi Annan - a fan of the service - to call and express his admiration by speakerphone.

He has worried some in BBC News by pulling a Newsnight investigation into Iain Duncan Smith while standing in for Dyke in October, and warning journalists last week to be less obsessed with exclusives. He has also said that the BBC will apologise for mistakes, as Newsnight did last week for the selective editing of an interview with the Humberside chief constable.

The deputy director-general is himself the son of a former chief constable, Sir Lawrence Byford, who went on to become HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary. Born in Castleford, he went to school in Lincoln. At 18, he "shot back to Yorkshire as fast as I could" to attend Leeds University, with its dual attractions of a rock venue that had hosted The Who and The Rolling Stones and a proximity to Elland Road football ground. "Part of the appeal was the degree, but the main appeal was Leeds United and that I could go to rock gigs and that's just about all I fulfilled during my university career, to be honest," he says, laughing.

For those who see Byford as anything but rock'n'roll, it will come as a surprise to learn that he goes to a rock gig every week and cites Franz Ferdinand, The Flaming Lips and Asian Dub Foundation among his favourites. "Rock music has been my life," says Byford, who is teetotal for health reasons and a practising Catholic. When he recently took his wife and children to New York for half-term (both his sons play guitar and drums), Byford slipped away to catch The Strokes at Madison Square Garden and an acoustic gig by Paul Weller.

It was at university that he shared a hall of residence with a young law lecturer called Geoff Hoon, who was to become the minister at the centre of the Hutton inquiry. At the student Law Society's St Valentines disco in 1978, Byford met his future wife, Hilary. With thick snow outside, Hoon agreed - for a fee of £3 - to allow Byford to use his blue Cortina to escort his date home.

The two men remain "great mates" but have had only two brief conversations in recent months, on Hoon's 50th birthday and Byford's appointment. "On Hutton we have been absolutely meticulous. He hasn't spoken to me and I haven't spoken to him. Both of us have just known it was inappropriate."

One of the most damaging episodes in the history of the BBC has, Byford insists, had positive outcomes, notably the public recognition that "the independence of the BBC is crucial" and that the organisation "makes the world a better place".

Aside from the football match, the drop-in atmosphere of a house filled with his five children and all their mates, and church on Sunday, Byford will devote the rest of the weekend to sampling the BBC's output. His favourites range from Desert Island Discs to Auf Wiedersehn Pet but do not include, critics of the Dalek will be disappointed to learn, re-running episodes of Dr Who.