New Director-General: Victory after `Stop Dyke' campaign

From Roland Rat To Broadcasting's Top Job
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The Independent Online
THE POST of director-general was advertised in April, but the race to become Sir John Birt's successor began months before. Some date its beginning to May 1998 when Greg Dyke shaved off the beard that he had sported for 20 years.

By mid-January this year, when Sir John invited the media corps to his annual drinks party, the only subject on everyone's lips was the battle for succession and the air was heavy with the crackle of prospective internal candidates eager to impress journalists.

But few have been impressed by a selection process that has been castigated as secretive, expensive, unwieldy and drawn out for far too long.

In the spring, campaign managers were appointed who made sure that whenever their candidate made a pronouncement it was as widely disseminated as possible.

And it was the campaign managers, rather than the candidates themselves, who leaked salacious gossip about rivals. One candidate was supposedly a secret drinker while perhaps as many as two were supposedly about to be revealed as cocaine addicts by the News of the World.

The internal candidates were: Alan Yentob, director of television; Tony Hall, chief executive of BBC News; Matthew Bannister, chief executive of BBC Production; Patricia Hodgson, director of policy and planning; Mark Byford, head of the BBC World Service; and Mark Thompson, director of regional broadcasting.

Hopefuls from outside the BBC were: Greg Dyke, chairman of Pearson Television; David Elstein, chief executive of Channel 5; Howard Stringer head of Sony America; Andrew Neil, publisher of The Scotsman; Will Hutton, editor-in- chief of The Observer; Howard Davies, executive director of the Financial Services Authority; and Richard Eyre, chief executive of ITV.

The campaign entered a new phase on 17 April when The Times unearthed an old story about Mr Dyke, who always was front-runner, donating pounds 50,000 to the Labour Party.

Mr Dyke's backing for the party in power immediately sparked a political controversy with the Tories insisting he could not be appointed.

The focus of the race now moved to those working for and against Mr Dyke. The Times produced members of the great and the good who opposed Mr Dyke because they believed he would strip the BBC of its political impartiality. Others, many of whom had worked with Mr Dyke at London Weekend Television in the Eighties, lined up to support him.

In what now appears to have been a serious political miscalculation, William Hague, leader of the Conservative Party, joined The Times' campaign and came out publicly against the Pearson TV chairman. Mr Hague's opposition to Mr Dyke was broadcast in The Times, which ran a front-page splash under a now-unfortunate headline: "Hague to `veto' Dyke's bid for BBC job."

The Conservative leader told the newspaper, which ran a campaign opposing Mr Dyke, that it would be "totally unacceptable for anyone who has so substantially and recently supported a political party to be appointed director-general of the BBC."

At the time, Tory officials believed Mr Hague's public intervention had effectively vetoed Mr Dyke.

The BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, moved quickly to assure Mr Hague that the appointment would be impartial and free of political pressure "whatever the source", and the list was whittled by a panel of governors from 13 candidates to a final five - Messrs Dyke, Yentob, Hall, Byford and Eyre.

The Times stepped up its campaign, and other newspapers voiced varying degrees of opposition to the idea of Mr Dyke as DG.

By the weekend, Mr Yentob - the leading internal candidate - was out of the race and the whole process, the longest in the BBC's history, was moving towards farce.

This week, as the BBC presented its annual report to Parliament, the chairman of the Media Select Committee, Gerald Kaufman, was threatening to investigate the selection procedures of the BBC.

But on Wednesday, after the presentation of the annual report to the press, the governors went to dinner together in Londonand arrived at a verdict - albeit a split decision by a small majority.

Tory sources said last night that Mr Hague now accepted the governors' decision and would approach his talks with Mr Dyke in a positive and constructive way. Labour sources said Mr Hague's move had backfired and was another example of his poor judgement.