Opinion: Memo to the new DG: on no account trust your deputy

A former senior BBC executive offers advice to candidates for the top jobs
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The Independent Online

As the BBC ponders this week on who should be its new chairman and director general, here are some lessons from history.

As the BBC ponders this week on who should be its new chairman and director general, here are some lessons from history.

Lesson one for the chairman: get the relationship with your director general right. Get it wrong and it's stilettos at dawn. An early BBC chairman, Lord Clarendon, loathed his DG John Reith and started referring to him as "Mussolini". Reith, a good hater, had no time for Clarendon. The result: years of BBC trench warfare before the prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, an old ally of Reith, asked Clarendon to stand down.

DGs 1: Chairmen 0.

Having seen what open warfare produced, subsequent chairmen favoured emollience, until Margaret Thatcher installed Marmaduke Hussey. Hussey ("I have long enjoyed being thought a fool") liked to present himself as a bumbling old duffer. But he took one look at the his DG, Alasdair Milne, and put a large black spot next to his name: "... not up to the job ... unbalanced and irresponsible."

Hussey approached his chum Lord Rothschild. Over lunch at the family bank, Rothschild asked: "How much power have you got? Can you fire the director general?" Hussey paused: "I think so." "Well," said Rothschild cheerily, "That's all that needs to be said, isn't it?" Thrilled by this insight, Hussey sharpened his stiletto. A few weeks later Milne was history.

DGs 1: Chairmen 1

Hussey appointed Michael Checkland DG. Checkland was an accountant and Hussey thought he would impose financial discipline. Instead, Checkland's BBC slid into a damaging series of strikes over pay. So Hussey put the black spot on his second DG. The strike was settled, but Hussey's view of Checkland did not improve.

Casting about for a successor, Hussey's eye fell on Checkland's deputy, John Birt, who was eager for promotion. Hussey made him director general designate and, unsheathing his stiletto again, encouraged Checkland to step down by offering only a derisory extension when his contract came up for renewal.

Checkland snapped. Asked at a Royal Television Society conference about the wisdom of having an elderly gent such as Hussey running the BBC, he could not resist. "When you talk to the governors about FM," he mused, "you want to be talking about frequency modulation, not Fuzzy Monsters."

Word reached Hussey. "He can't stay after that," he pronounced, and quite soon, with three months of his contract still to run, Checkland left.

DGs 1: Chairmen 2.

But as in the best drama, the victors started falling out. Hussey went into a titanic sulk when Birt got all the credit for the astonishingly good deal the BBC got from the 1994 Charter Review. The two men running the world's greatest broadcasting institution did not speak to each other for more than a year.

Then Birt deliberately failed to tell Hussey, whose wife was lady-in-waiting to the Queen, that Princess Diana had given an interview to Panorama - he feared a leak to the palace. Outraged, Hussey tried to get Birt fired. But his touch with the stiletto deserted him. Birt, who had powerful allies, survived. It was Hussey who left early.

DGs 2: Chairmen 2

A period of calm followed under the new chairman Christopher Bland. But then came Gavyn Davies and in his wake, Greg Dyke. The true history of this doomed relationship has yet to be written, however the problem was not too much friction, but too little. Dyke himself liked to joke: "It's just as well we're partners because together we make a complete person. He's all detail, I'm none."

Davies was not prepared to knife Dyke during the Hutton inquiry. In the end, Davies knifed himself, in the Quixotic belief that this would save his other half. It didn't. Dyke went too.

The lessons from history are clear. A good BBC chairman never gets too close to his DG, but neither does he allow a gulf to open up. The key to peace is armed neutrality - and making sure your allies are more powerful than the DG's.

For the new DG the lessons are obvious too: be wary of your chairman, make powerful friends - and never, ever, trust your deputy.

The author, having learnt his own lessons, is keen to preserve his anonymity


Clarendon on Reith:


Reith on Clarendon:

"A stupid man, and weak."

Hussey on Birt:

"A very good guided missile, but on autopilot - just as likely to hit his own troops as the enemy."

Birt on Hussey:

"Cantankerous, cranky, obsessive, bitter, ungracious."