Alasdair Milne: BBC executive who rose to Director-General but was sacked under pressure from Mrs Thatcher

 

Alasdair Milne is destined to be remembered for the brutal manner of his dismissal as Director-General of the BBC in 1987, during Margaret Thatcher's drive to purge the corporation of what she saw as its indiscipline, extravagance, irresponsibility and anti-Conservative bias.

He was the first DG in the BBC's history to suffer such ignominy, although since then two of his successors, Greg Dyke and George Entwistle, have undergone a similar fate. But to focus only on that painful end to Milne's career does not do justice to one of the most original and talented programme-makers to emerge during television's formative years.

Born in India to a Scottish doctor and his wife in 1930, he was brought up by his grandparents in Edinburgh until he was six, and retained a trace of that city's accent all his life. In 1937 his parents returned to Britain and settled in Kent. At Winchester School he rose to be prefect of hall, the equivalent of head boy, and did National Service as an officer in the Gordon Highlanders before going up to New College, Oxford, in 1951. There he met Sheila Graucob, an undergraduate at St Hugh's, and they married in New College chapel on Midsummer's Day, 1954, just after taking their finals. There were three children from the notably close marriage, which ended when Sheila died in 1992.

On leaving Oxford with a degree in modern languages, Milne sought to begin a career in business management, but he failed four interviews. Then he answered a BBC advertisement for a general trainee, and was one of two selected out of 1,100 applicants. The plan was for him to spend two years working in a variety of departments before deciding to which, if any, he would be attracted. After making the rounds of several branches of radio, including the World Service, he joined the current affairs television unit at Lime Grove in west London at the end of 1955; and there he stayed.

Lime Grove's output was then effectively run by the innovative Grace Wyndham Goldie. With the newly launched commercial ITV giving the BBC its first taste of competition, she saw that the approach to current affairs had to be less stiff and formal than before, more in tune with the spirit of the age, and she was gathering round her a group of young producers who shared that vision. She assigned Milne to a new early-evening interview programme called Highlight, produced by Donald Baverstock, an extrovert Welshman.

It was the start of a fertile partnership and friendship between two young men with the world – and a relatively unexploited new medium – at their feet. Baverstock fired off ideas, some deeply impractical, while the more thoughtful Milne would find ways of translating the best of them into compelling television. Both possessed flair in abundance, but both displayed a level of self-confidence that could come across as arrogance and eventually damaged their careers.

Until 1957 both BBC and ITV had been obliged to close down between 6pm and 7pm – the "toddlers' truce" that was supposed to allow parents to get their children off to bed more easily. When the restriction was lifted, the BBC decided to fill 40 minutes of the time with current affairs. Baverstock and Milne came up with the blueprint for the long-running Tonight programme, a mixture of serious and light-hearted segments with a quirky twist, which pioneered a new style of relaxed and intimate presentation and made stars of such as Cliff Michelmore, Alan Whicker and Fyfe Robertson.

In 1962 Milne and Baverstock were involved in another ground-breaking experiment. With Ned Sherrin they created That Was The Week That Was, the BBC's first attempt at regular political satire. It was a huge success with Saturday-night audiences but less popular with politicians, whose remorseless complaints led to its being taken off the air just before the 1964 election, although by then it had made the reputation of its compere, David Frost, and set the pattern for many other satirical programmes in succeeding years.

Although Milne's career at the BBC seemed to be thriving, he left in 1965, principally out of loyalty to Baverstock. The Welshman's somewhat dismissive manner alienated many of the powers at TV Centre and he failed to get the job of Controller of Programmes, for which his seniority and ability seemed to entitle him. So Baverstock left, and Milne resigned in sympathy.

Together with Antony Jay, another former Tonight producer (and later co-writer of the long-running comedy Yes, Minister), the pair formed one of the first independent production companies – Jay, Baverstock and Milne, or JBM. They made marketing films for industry and a few documentaries for ITV, but after little more than a year Baverstock went to Yorkshire TV while Milne joined a consortium to bid for the Scottish ITV franchise.

Despite having lived in Edinburgh for only a few childhood years he still identified strongly with Scotland and enjoyed playing the bagpipes – even if those who heard him found it hard to judge how well he had mastered the instrument. He was, anyway, keen to move north of the border with his family. The ITV bid failed but he began to lobby for the position of Controller of BBC Scotland, based in Glasgow.

He took up the post in January 1968, when the Scottish National Party was starting to win by-elections and the move for devolution was building a head of steam. Milne felt this should be reflected in the BBC, and he gained a measure of independence from London during his five years in the job, learning much about the Byzantine intricacies of the corporation's politics, which would stand him in good stead later. He developed a laid-back management style, typified by his tendency to slip his shoes off during meetings in his office and put his feet up on the desk. It was no doubt meant to put visitors at their ease, but some found it disconcerting.

He went back south at the beginning of 1973 to succeed David Attenborough as Director of Programmes at TV Centre, and found something of a siege mentality. Although the output boasted many successes, especially in drama and comedy, there was competition from an increasingly wealthy and popular ITV, as well as sniping from politicians claiming bias and irresponsibility, and from campaigners alleging violations of taste and decency. One of his first tasks was to co-ordinate the programming submission to the Annan Committee on the future of broadcasting. Its report was critical of the BBC's performance in a number of areas, especially current affairs.

While seeking ways of improving the schedule, Milne also had to fend off complaints about individual programmes, many initiated by Mary Whitehouse, a Midlands housewife with a gift for grabbing headlines. In 1976 he was involved in a dispute about Brimstone and Treacle, Dennis Potter's play involving incest and the Devil, which he refused to screen. "I found it repugnant," he wrote later.

After the Conservatives came to power in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher, disputes with the Government became more and more frequent, many concerning Northern Ireland. Milne – by then Managing Director of the TV service – was lucky to be away in New York at the time of the fierce public row that occurred when a Panorama crew, including Jeremy Paxman, filmed the IRA taking over the village of Carrickmore. A furious Thatcher said the BBC must "put its house in order." And at the beginning of the Falklands War in 1982, Milne and George Howard, the chairman, were summoned by a group of Conservative MPs and harangued because the BBC seemed to be giving equal credence to British and Argentinian spokesmen.

It was a foretaste of what was to come for Milne, who was about to reach the summit of his ambition. He had been chosen to succeed Ian Trethowan as Director-General, moving to Broadcasting House after spending most of his career at TV Centre. At his farewell party, colleagues arranged a pipers' lament, which proved an all too appropriate omen.

Over the next five years there would be plenty to lament. With Thatcher, triumphant after the Falklands, about to score a second election victory, it was a difficult time to be taking on the leadership of an organisation that she and her fellow ministers had in their sights. John Birt, the next-but-one Director General, succinctly summarised the relationship between Milne and the Prime Minister in his memoirs. She had, he wrote, "regarded Alasdair Milne as an arrogant public-school toff, presiding over an unmanaged, out-of-control institution".

In 1983 George Howard was replaced as Chairman by Stuart Young, an accountant and the brother of a member of the Government. He and his deputy, William Rees-Mogg, were determined to play a far more active role in running the BBC than had been traditional. Although Milne forged a cordial personal relationship with Young, a more aware Director-General would have foreseen the trouble ahead.

The licence fee was due for review in 1985. Milne and the management, finding themselves short of funds to compete against ITV, launched a campaign to have the fee increased by nearly half, from £46 to £65 a year. The timing was unfortunate, because 1984 saw growing criticism of the BBC for what some saw as a drop in programme standards. An American mini-series, The Thorn Birds, came in for particular criticism. Douglas Hurd, then a junior minister at the Home Office, told the press the BBC could not expect any licence increase if they continued to screen such trash. And there was sniping from the press – especially the Murdoch press – about over-manning and other alleged extravagances.

The Government appointed a committee under Alan Peacock, a free-market economist, to look into new ways of funding the BBC, not ruling out advertising. Milne was horrified, but he underestimated the gravity of the threat to the corporation. He believed that by mounting a public campaign stressing what good value viewers obtained, while otherwise conducting business as usual, he could fend off the political assault.

The Peacock Committee's report did not in the event recommend advertisements, but it did make other unpalatable suggestions for reining in the BBC, including the privatisation of its two most popular sound channels, Radios 1 and 2. In 1985 the licence fee was set at £58, well short of what the management felt was needed.

There were more problems, too, on the programme front, with Northern Ireland again a contentious issue. In July 1985 the Home Secretary Leon Brittan asked the BBC not to screen a programme in the Real Lives series that included an interview with Martin McGuinness, a Sinn Fein politician believed to be a leader of the IRA. Milne was on holiday, but in his absence the governors agreed not to screen it as scheduled. Milne thought this a violation of the BBC's political independence and came close to resignation. Eventually the programme was shown with a few amendments.

Meanwhile the BBC was engaged in defending two expensive libel actions. After incurring costs of £1m in a case where a doctor believed he had been defamed on That's Life, the governors persuaded Milne to settle out of court after the trial had lasted three months. And when Panorama alleged that two Conservative MPs, Neil Hamilton and Gerald Howarth, had links with extreme right-wing groups, Milne insisted that the ensuing libel case should be fought to the end, despite the advice of the corporation's lawyers that it would be tough to defend.

The Panorama case was in court when Marmaduke Hussey arrived as the new chairman, Stuart Young having died of cancer a few months earlier. Hussey, a former executive with The Times and the Daily Mail, had a reputation for toughness that belied his bluff, patrician manner. His first executive act at the BBC was to pull out of the Panorama case, much against Milne's will. It was an appalling start to what was to be a brief and barren relationship between the two men.

In his memoirs, Hussey revealed that after two or three weeks as chairman he had decided that Milne was not up to the job, and that the other governors agreed with him. "It was the whole attitude, contempt for the governors, and contempt for any normal principles of conducting a business, like the ludicrous and arrogant way we were embarking upon a series of libel actions which our advisers told us we had no chance of winning... He simply wasn't in control of the BBC or, for that matter, of himself. He epitomised a failing management culture that was leading the BBC to disaster."

It did not take long for him to lance the boil. On 29 January 1987, after a governors' meeting that Milne had attended, he was summoned to the chairman's office where Hussey, alongside his deputy Joel Barnett, told him that if he did not resign he would be sacked. He chose to resign. In his 1988 book DG: The Memoirs of a British Broadcaster he made it clear that he regarded himself as a martyr to the cause of the BBC's independence, brought down by meddling by politicians and their placemen on the over-mighty Board of Governors.

Although only 57, he took on no high-profile full-time work after his dismissal. For a while he was a visiting professor at the University of Miami and in 1999 he chaired a task force on Gaelic broadcasting. He continued to write and comment on broadcasting matters and in 2004 he created a stir by remarking that BBC programmes had become too populist and predictable since the rise of powerful women to the most senior executive positions. "I like women but they have ruined the BBC," was the Times headline.

He had not meant the comment to be sexist, but his naive inability to foresee that it would be construed as such highlighted a principal reason for his ultimate failure at the top level. Running such a fractious and high-profile institution as the BBC requires, above all, the ability to spot the banana-skins strewn before you in plenty of time to step around them. For Alasdair Milne as Director-General it was one slip after another, until the final crashing fall that destroyed his career.

Michael Leapman

Alasdair Gordon Milne, television producer and broadcasting executive: born India 8 October 1930; Director-General, BBC 1982-87; married 1954 Sheila Graucob (died 1992; two sons, one daughter); died 8 January 2013.

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