New Director-General: How an outsider beat the `toffs' to the top in TV

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The Independent Online
GREG DYKE once told friends he had as much chance of becoming director general of the BBC as Pol Pot.

Certainly, his curriculum vitae does not read like that of an aspiring director general. The architect of Roland Rat, the champion of Blind Date, the anti-establishment grammar- school boy made good; all denote admirable populist instincts and hard-working self advancement.

But a Reithian commitment to public service broadcasting is absent in the history of the former managing director of London Weekend Television, chairman of GMTV, editor in chief of TV-am, and currently chairman of Channel 5 and Pearson Television.

Neither does he look or sound the part. Small, chirpy, noisily outspoken, the bald and, until very recently, bearded figure of Dyke, can usually be heard even before he is seen.

He laughs often and uproariously, and speaks in what is often wrongly described as cockney, but in fact is the flat suburban vowels of Hayes, Middlesex, the area next to Heathrow Airport, where he grew up as part of what he terms "the respectable lower classes."

His whole demeanour is accessible and friendly, but gives little hint of the authority his new office possesses. Dyke tells a story against himself which illustrates this. "When I was at LWT," he says, "I went to Crystal Palace to see some event we were filming. I went to this hotdog stand. It said `LWT Only' on it. I said: `Can I have a hotdog, please?' The man said: `Sorry, mate, LWT staff only.' I said: `I'm the managing director.' He said: `Yeah, mate, and I'm Adolf Hitler."

The massive bureaucracy of the BBC will view its new supremo with some of the scepticism of that hot-dog seller. Dyke is the biggest outsider ever to sit in the office of DG, having never worked at the corporation throughout his varied career.

That last enigmatic phrase is Dyke's own. "Varied career," is how he sums up the years 1965 to 1983 in his Who's Who entry. It is certainly a briefer, if considerably less-revealing, description than depression, the dole and growing political awareness. But those were among the attributes that characterised the new director general's hidden years.

He was born in Hayes, on 20 May 1947, the youngest of three sons and was educated at Hayes Grammar School. He has described his late father, a manager of a life insurance department who came from a family of publicans as a "Thatcherite". His mother's family who ran a sweet shop in the inner- city borough of Hackney, he described as "classic working-class Tories."

Dyke complained in one interview of the cliched descriptions of his upbringing. "People portray me as a yob. It's pathetic. We had a nice house, a car. It was secure, comfortable. We were competitive, but not academically. It was football. I was successful because I was the worst of the three of us at football."

Football has continued to loom large in Dyke's life. He played it regularly, often with the incumbent DG, Sir John Birt. And he is a non-executive director of Manchester United. His devotion to Man United certainly carried him through the recent row over his financial donation to the Labour Party.

One friend said: "He was still on a high after Barcelona. He was sitting close to his idol Bobby Charlton during his club's historic victory over Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final. I think it might have been the best day of his life."

Dyke left school with one grade-E A level in Pure and Applied Maths. He went to work at Marks & Spencer as a trainee manager, but hated it. "My mother always said: `You won't be able to do what you like when you go to work' and it was true. It was class-based, all these failed public schoolboys telling you what to do. They said: `Did you have elocution lessons at your school?' I couldn't spell it, never mind having lessons. They fired me and I was delighted, but shaken."

The distaste for ex-public school boys or at least for the traditional British establishment is something the BBC staff should note. For Dyke has not lost it as one of his recent recollections shows.

"When I was at LWT," he told an interviewer, "I was staggered by how bad some of the questions were from the institutional shareholders. You're sitting opposite this spotty prat who's telling you what he thinks about the television industry and you think: `What the hell do you know about it?"

Dyke's career, after Marks and Spencer, involved taking a job with his local newspaper where he began to develop an interest in politics.

After a brief stint on the Newcastle Journal he married, came back to London, got a job with the Community Relations Council, found it "ludicrously superficial, riddled with racial politics", left it, signed on the dole and got divorced. At 30, he felt "deeply lost."

A friend tipped him off about a research job on the London Programme at LWT. "I'd never felt so at home in my life," he was later to recall.

He also made valuable friends. The head of news and current affairs at LWT was John Birt, the director of programmes Michael Grade, the chairman Christopher Bland, now chairman of the BBC board of governors.

The classlessness of commercial television suited Dyke, and where there were what he refers to as "Oxbridge Types", they didn't worry him. They were a "bit of a rollover," he once said.

Dyke knew what the audience wanted, and rose rapidly, becoming a multi millionaire, along with colleagues Barry Cox, Melvyn Bragg and Christopher Bland, in the LWT sell-off to Granada.

Dyke went to Harvard for three months in the early Nineties to learn about business and came back converted to "caring capitalism". He had lunch with Mandelson and told him that this was the future of the Labour Party. Mandelson in turn asked Dyke and other former LWT colleagues to help the party. Dyke was pleased to do so, though it was a gesture which very nearly cost him the DG job.

Barry Cox, now deputy chairman of Channel 4, believes that would have been a terrible mistake and maintains that his former colleague will bring a new direction to the BBC. He wrote in The Independent recently: "Greg Dyke has a strong record of vigorous, independent journalism in the commercial public service broadcasters."

Dyke who has two children with his partner Sue, a teacher, and two from her former relationship, can be self-effacing. He admits to having "the concentration span of a peanut." And he believes in working life being fun.