Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

Union power was awful - but have we gone too far the other way?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It was a truly historic moment because until then Sapper and his union colleagues had ruled the roost right across ITV for more than two decades. They decided just about everything that mattered as successive ITV managements failed to stand up to them. This was also illustrated in Bragg's series when Sapper was seen as demanding more and more for his members, claiming the ITV companies could easily afford to pay it.

Then Sapper met his match in the shape of TVam's Australian chief executive Bruce Gyngell. The story was simple. The ACTT at TVam decided to strike, and Gyngell told them that if they left the building they would never come back and they never did. Gyngell and his management colleagues manned the station and kept it on the air despite the strike. Suddenly union power in ITV was over.

In the third film in the series, which I thought the best of the five films despite the fact that I was in it, you suddenly saw the anguish on Sapper's face as he realised his years of dominating a whole industry were over. Now, rather than threatening the TVam management, he was filmed pathetically complaining that the management wouldn't even talk to him.

Now all that was a long time ago, and it was only by watching Bragg's film that I remembered the unions' attitude and how awful it was dealing with them in my early years in television. The real problem was not Sapper but the little Hitlers who ran the unions at the various ITV companies. They made the lives of the programme-makers a misery with ridiculous restrictive practices.

Of course, when the unions collapsed it left many ITV managements with a problem - they finally had to manage their organisations. For years they had conspired with the unions and let local union officials run whole chunks of their operations. For instance, at LWT the management had even agreed that all communication with the workforce would go via the unions, which meant the company couldn't even send letters to its people without union agreement.

As one of those who, as chief executive of LWT, followed Bruce's lead and did everything he could to get rid of the unions, I look around today and, very softly, I ask: have things now gone too far the other way? A young man who works in television said, when I met him recently, "Your generation had it all and when you moved on you pulled up the drawbridge behind you." There's certainly some truth in that.

In the past year ITV has made more than a thousand people redundant; the BBC is planning to get rid of 4,000 more and even BSkyB, the financial success story of the past decade, is getting rid of workers. It's all a far cry from the days when the unions were in charge. But the problem is far more than redundancies.

When kids leaving university are employed full time for radio stations earning £6,000 a year (according to another young man I met recently), when jobs in this industry are increasingly badly paid, with no pensions, long hours and very little security, I look at my contemporaries and feel we were part of a blessed generation. And, whether we like to admit it or not, the reason we were well paid and have got decent pensions was all about those terrible unions.

There were always many more people wanting to go into the media than there were jobs, but the unions ensured that people received decent wages if they did get a job. With an estimated 30,000 media students leaving college every year and no unions to maintain minimum wages, some young people are being horribly exploited by the free market forces so beloved by the current Labour Government. But then that's another story.