Alan Protheroe: Combative BBC executive who clashed with the Thatcher Government

 

Even taking into account the BBC's more recent traumas, the 1980s were the most turbulent decade in its history. Alan Protheroe played a central and often controversial role in the Corporation's bitter battles with Mrs.Thatcher's Government. With hindsight, it can be argued that the BBC suffered long-term damage because of his stubborn failure – along with that of senior colleagues – to recognise and allow for the increasing assertiveness of the politically appointed board of governors, reflecting a fundamental shift in the rules of engagement between Westminster and Broadcasting House.

The start of hostilities can be dated to the Falklands War of 1982, when influential Conservatives accused the BBC of being deficient in patriotism. But the single most serious controversy came in 1985, when Protheroe was assistant director-general to Alasdair Milne, with particular responsibility for news and current affairs. As part of the documentary series Real Lives, the BBC was planning a programme on the troubles in Northern Ireland which included an interview with Martin McGuinness, the Sinn Fein politician and allegedly a senior member of the IRA (an allegation he denied).

Not long before the programme was due to air in August, Thatcher had made a speech demanding that terrorists should be denied "the oxygen of publicity". When the press got wind of the programme, the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, called for it to be cancelled; but Protheroe described it as "responsible and balanced" and said it would go ahead. Breaking with their traditional hands-off approach, the governors insisted on viewing the programme in advance of transmission and then ordered that it should not be aired, despite Protheroe's warning that they were setting a dangerous precedent. In an impassioned article in The Listener, Protheroe was highly critical of this challenge to the BBC's editorial independence.

Eventually the programme, with amendments, was shown the following October; but the fallout from the dispute persisted, and in 1987 Milne – who had been on holiday for much of the critical time – was dismissed by the newly appointed chair of governors, Marmaduke Hussey, selected by Thatcher on the understanding that he would take a tough line with management. When Milne's successor, Michael Checkland, brought in John Birt to reorganise the news operation, Protheroe recognised that he would not fit into the new set-up and took early retirement.

The son of a Nonconformist minister, Alan Protheroe was born in 1934 in St Davids, South Wales, and was educated at Maesteg Grammar School. Leaving school at 17, he joined the Glamorgan Gazette as a reporter before being called up for national service. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Welch Regiment and took an active interest in military affairs for much of the rest of his life, joining the Territorial Army and rising to be a colonel in the Royal Regiment of Wales. He was awarded the MBE in 1980 and the CBE in 1991, both in the military list.

In 1957 he joined the BBC in Wales as a reporter and in 1964 was appointed editor of Welsh news and current affairs. Six years later, he moved to London as assistant editor of television news, and began a swift climb up the executive ladder. By 1977 he was editor of the entire TV news output and in 1980 was promoted to assistant director of BBC news and current affairs. It was from this post that Milne plucked him to serve as his principal assistant.

Lean and wiry, and capable of a ferocious temper, Protheroe was a staunch and sincere defender of the BBC and its values, with a strongly developed competitive streak. When Thatcher visited the Falklands in 1983, he quarrelled openly with Bernard Ingham, her press secretary, who had asked the BBC to pool its coverage with ITN. Then, in 1984, he again declined to give ITN access to BBC film, this time of the Brighton bombing, in which the Prime Minister had narrowly escaped with her life. The following year the commercial broadcasters retaliated by refusing to let the BBC broadcast a TV-am interview with Princess Michael of Kent, discussing her father's Nazi past. Protheroe had the interview recorded from the screen and it was aired without permission.

This blatant sharp practice infuriated the BBC governors. They told Milne that they had lost confidence in Protheroe, and suggested he should be stripped of some responsibilities. In his autobiography, Milne said he was "flabbergasted" by the request, but eventually agreed to comply in part. He described his accident-prone assistant DG thus: "Short, chain-smoking, highly strung, bleeper always in action, he would occasionally go 'over the top', but he is not alone in that land. Though he was unfailingly courteous to the governors, I sensed that the rapport between them was never strong."

Indeed, both men had another serious clash with the board when the Corporation was sued for libel by two Conservative MPs, Neil Hamilton and Gerald Howarth, over a Panorama programme, Maggie's Militant Tendency. Protheroe and Milne were ready to defend the case in court, but were over-ruled by Lord Barnett, the acting chairman, who ordered them to settle, at a cost to the licence payer of £240,000.

On leaving the BBC, Protheroe was appointed managing director of Services Sound and Vision Corporation, which runs the British Forces Broadcasting Service. He retired in 1994. He was a founder member of the Association of British Editors, and its chairman in 1987. In 1956, he married Anne Miller, who died in 1999, and in 2004 he married Rosemary Tucker, who survives him, along with one of the sons from his first marriage.

Michael Leapman

Alan Protheroe, TV executive: born St. Davids, Wales 10 January 1934; married 1956 Anne Miller (died 1999, one son, one son deceased); 2004 Rosemary Tucker; died 6 April 2013.

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