Radio: He survived Hutton. Now for Humphrys

The appointment of Mark Damazer to the top job at Radio 4 is big news for the 'Today' programme. Tim Luckhurst reports
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The Independent Online

Before Mark Damazer won promotion this weekend to the post of controller of Radio 4, the most coveted job in British radio, one old friend said, "I don't know whether he had a good Hutton or a bad Hutton but he certainly had a very engaged Hutton." Damazer was one of the key journalists subjected to interrogation by the internal inquiry established by Mark Byford and derided by colleagues as a "kangaroo court".

The clumsy nature of that investigation left observers uncertain as to who had emerged unscathed. Now, in Damazer's case, the answer is clear. The outgoing deputy director of news has the respect and gratitude of the new director-general. Of all the executives implicated in the Hutton process, Damazer is one Mark Thomson has seen fit to promote. Others, including Damazer's old boss Richard Sambrook, have been rewarded with ambiguous lateral moves.

Damazer clinched his new job despite fierce competition from his colleague and friend Roger Mosey, the BBC's director of television news and head of current affairs Peter Horrocks. One Television Centre insider said, "It was a very close call, but the version doing the rounds here is that Roger is too involved in planning coverage of the general election to make the move now. He has to make sure politics does not bore the nation rigid. That is quite demanding."

Jenny Abramsky, the BBC director of radio and music who sat on the appointment board with director-general Mark Thomson describes Damazer as a "passionate listener and supporter of Radio 4". She added: "When you talk to him you realise it is in his blood."

Others say the interesting aspect is that all three of the final contenders for the job were journalists. One radio insider explains, "Mark Thomson and Jenny Abramksy were not looking for someone to shake up Radio 4. It is doing well. But the area where there is concern is the news programme."

Today needs a lift and PM has lost its way. Damazer urgently needs to decide who is presenting Today and whether Sarah Montague is a permanent replacement for Sue MacGregor. Edward Stourton is a Damazer fan; he greeted the appointment yesterday as "unalloyed good news". But there is still the question of John Humphrys - who remains one of the great post-Hutton survivors and still raises hackles with his interviewing style.

Outgoing controller Helen Boaden is credited with strengthening drama and setting The Archers back on firm ground after a period when it irritated loyalists by flirting with political correctness. Speaking from Spain where he was enjoying a weekend break yesterday, Damazer said, "Radio 4 is in terrific shape and my challenge is to cherish it, sustain it and make sure it remains the home for intelligence flair and wit." What he meant, according to the source at BBC radio, was: "Sort out the core news and current affairs programmes that deliver the bulk of Radio 4s audience, maintain and enhance the quality of drama and find some decent comedy."

That encapsulates the scale of the job. Mark Damazer may prove well suited. Sara Nathan, a former editor of Channel 4 news, was Damazer's contemporary at Cambridge in the late 1970s. Nathan says, "Mark is a brilliant chap with a huge hinterland. He will be wonderful. He is interested in all the sort of things the station does well He combines creativity with a serious grasp of news."

Mark Damazer is the son of a Jewish delicatessen owner from Willesden in north London. He won a place to read history at Cambridge in 1974 and graduated with a double-starred first from Gonville and Caius College in 1977. Another contemporary remembers "an intense but adorable chap with long hair and a scarf who sat in his room drinking coffee while all the brightest people congregated to enjoy the most stimulating conversations".

One student recalls that he excelled at "counselling other undergraduates about their love lives". But Damazer was not just an agony uncle. He enjoyed a relationship with Jenny Powell, the student daughter of Conservative and Ulster Unionist politician Enoch Powell. Powell later included a dedication to him in his biography of Joseph Chamberlain.

From Cambridge he went to the John F Kennedy School of Government at Harvard on a Harkness Scholarship. There he met his wife, Rosemary Morgan, with whom he has two children. A BBC friend says, "He has an abiding love for American culture and politics. In those days Harkness scholars were given a map of America roughly divided into six sections, sent off for three months and told to make sure they visited four of them. Mark must have visited at least 30 states." (He recently returned from a working visit to Washington DC bringing John Kerry and George Bush campaign badges for friends in BBC news.)

On his return from the United States, Damazer was one of three applicants to win a place on the prestigious ITN news trainee scheme. His two direct contemporaries were Edward Stourton and the investigative reporter Michael Crick. He worked briefly on the ill-fated TV-AM. A journalist who knew him there recalls: "He was too clever and seemed vaguely suspicious about the whole idea. But being Damazer he forced himself to be as good at populism as he is at everything else."

Damazer is a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. He has a holiday retreat in Italy to which he escapes for regular rest and games of tennis. After TV-AM he worked at BBC World Service and the Six O'Clock News before rising through the ranks to become head of BBC political programmes. Some sources suggest that Damazer is being lined up to replace Jenny Abramsky as director of radio when the latter retires. That is intended to imply that he will be a contender for director-general when Mark Thomson reaches the end of his term. At 49, Damazer is young enough to go all the way to the top.

He is liked as well as respected. One BBC journalist explains: "During Hutton, Mark gave a lot of kindness and support to people in the firing line although he was facing the Downing Street big guns himself. People will not knock him. He's a good guy."

Damazer has little direct experience of radio but his appointment implies that the BBC is determined to lead Radio 4's journalism out of its post-Hutton despond. His other challenge will be to prove genuine understanding of comedy, drama and culture. The famous hinterland is going to be fully tested, but even Damazer's critics admit it exists. Their concern is that he is too gentle to bully recalcitrant staff.

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