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

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

STILETTO JIBES

Clarendon on Reith:

"Mussolini."

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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing / PR / Social Media Executive

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A thriving online media busines...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?