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David Glencross

Powerful broadcasting administrator dubbed 'commercial television's chief censor'

David Glencross, broadcasting administrator: born Salford, Lancashire 3 March 1936; staff, BBC 1958-70; Senior Programme Officer, ITA (later IBA) 1970-76, Head of Programme Services 1976, Deputy Director of Television 1977-83, Director 1983-90; Chief Executive, ITC 1991-96; CBE 1994; chairman, Disasters Emergency Committee 1999-2005; married 1965 Elizabeth Richardson (one daughter); died London 6 August 2007.

As director and deputy director of television at the Independent Broadcasting Authority during the height of its years as the regulator of commercial television in Britain, David Glencross was one of the most powerful administrators in broadcasting.

He was instrumental in setting the ground rules for the fledgling Channel 4 when it was launched in 1982, before, nine years later, becoming chief executive of the IBA's successor, the Independent Television Commission, in a new, multi-channel age of deregulation.

But it is Glencross's years at the IBA for which he will be best remembered in the industry. As a regulator, the government-appointed body was, by definition, also a censor. Some of those at the sharp end of making groundbreaking programmes found Glencross to be an obstacle. At the same time, executives in the ITV companies and at Channel 4 worked with him to smooth the way for television that could escape from the establishment straitjacket imposed half a century earlier with the founding of the BBC.

He was considered fairly enlightened in his approach to drama and sex and violence, even encouraging controversial programmes such as The Naked Civil Servant (1975), a dramatised portrait of Quentin Crisp which had been turned down by the BBC. But censorship of current affairs programmes and documentaries was frequent throughout Glencross's time at the Independent Television Authority (ITA) and its successor, the IBA, on the grounds that all material broadcast had to conform to the Broadcasting Act's demands for "objectivity", "impartiality" and "balance".

Glencross arrived at the authority soon after British troops were sent to Northern Ireland and the Troubles became a political hot potato. By 1971, all the commercial channel's programmes on the subject were vetted by the ITA, on the basis that they had to be suitable for screening within Northern Ireland itself. One cause célèbre was "South of the Border" (1971), an episode of ITV's World in Action series examining how the violence was causing political pressures in the Irish Republic. Its producer, Granada Television, refused to make changes, so the ITA banned the programme on the pretext that it lacked balance. Later, Granada did the same when the IBA demanded that footage of IRA hunger strikers be removed from another World in Action programme, "The Propaganda War" (1981).

This was the climate into which dissident voices such as John Pilger stepped. After many battles with the newly titled IBA, which regarded his programmes as unbalanced, the anti-establishment journalist described Glencross as "commercial television's chief censor". First, in 1976, the authority insisted on topping-and-tailing each half-hour episode of his Pilger series with the disclaimer: "In the programme which follows, reporter John Pilger expresses a personal view."

Conflict with the IBA continued when Pilger switched to longer documentaries. His most public and longest-running battle came with The Truth Game (1983), in which Pilger argued that Western politicians used "official truths" – propaganda – to justify spending increasing amounts on nuclear weapons. The programme was withdrawn from ITV schedules just 19 days before its planned transmission, when Glencross recommended that it should be viewed by the IBA's full board and subsequently insisted that a "complementary" programme should be made by someone else.

This was the first time that the demand for a balancing documentary had been made after production of a programme but before its transmission, and The War About Peace, a pro-nuclear deterrent film presented by Max Hastings, was screened two months after The Truth Game.

Following the arrival of Channel 4, originally owned by the ITV companies, arguments about balance continued, even though there were some attempts by Glencross to allow Channel 4 to become the "alternative" voice that had been promised. But it still had to conform to the Broadcasting Act and there was a sense of déja vu in some of the IBA's vetting.

When the film director Ken Loach made Questions of Leadership (1983), a documentary series in which union members called their leaders to account, Glencross was involved in detailed discussions with Channel 4, resulting in the demand for a balancing programme to be made and the need to edit down the original films. The material was returned to its producer, Central Independent Television, for this purpose but never resubmitted for transmission.

Only when I investigated this major case of censorship for my own book about Loach's work was the truth revealed, 20 years later. Once the programmes arrived back at Central, Robert Maxwell, a director of the ITV company, had put pressure on the board to suppress them, at a time when he was buying the Daily Mirror and needed to ensure cordial relations with union leaders. So Glencross was not the ultimate culprit and, whatever programme-makers thought about his interference over the years, most productions in which he showed an interest did reach the screen.

Indeed, some ITV executives were complimentary about his willingness to listen to their arguments. Richard Creasey, who headed the documentaries department at Central and its predecessor, ATV, which included Loach and Pilger, went through many "negotiations" with Glencross to establish the right to make "personal view" films. "Most of the programmes I took to them were untransmittable, according to the regulations," Creasey explained.

I was able to argue that every documentary is, by definition, subjective and there is a huge difference between that and a current affairs programme, which must be balanced. I think David Glencross really believed there was a difference between documentaries and current affairs, and the IBA couldn't ignore the fact that these big names making documentaries were winning awards. David had a stack of regulations, which there was no way he could keep. From John's point of view, he was a block. My job was to persuade David that this was an opportunity to sail even closer to the wind – and he did. He actually changed more than anyone I've ever known.

Born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1936, Glencross attended Salford Grammar School and read History and Geography at Trinity College, Cambridge, before in 1958 joining the BBC as a general trainee in Birmingham. He moved to External Services, at Bush House in London, as a senior producer in 1966.

Four years later, after a spell as the BBC Northern Region's assistant head of programmes in Manchester (1968-70), Glencross switched to being an administrator, joining the ITA in 1970 as a senior programme officer, rising to become head of programme services, deputy director of television and director of television.

From the outset, he was closely involved in decisions about contentious programmes. Following the 1972 killing of 13 unarmed Catholic demonstrators by British troops in Northern Ire-land on Bloody Sunday, the Thames-produced current affairs series This Week wanted to broadcast dramatic film of the incident, with eyewitness accounts and exclusive interviews with the NCOs of those soldiers who took part in the shooting.

With the government warning against the broadcast of anything that might prejudice the judicial inquiry that it had announced, Thames Television's controller of features, Jeremy Isaacs, consulted Glencross and worked out a formula that would allow ITV to show the footage: two 10-minute rolls of unedited film would be screened, linked by John Edwards in the studio. Glencross described it as "an original step forward in an area [i.e. of contempt] which is pretty well uncharted in television journalism".

When the new era of cable and satellite channels arrived, making regulation an outdated concept in television, Glencross was chosen to head the Independent Television Commission (1991-96), the commercial channels' new watchdog with a "light touch", bringing some stability to the major upheaval that followed the 1990 Broadcasting Act. He had himself spoken out against the original White Paper, with its uncompromising emphasis on giving new ITV franchises to the highest bidders – putting money before quality – and there were some amendments.

After retiring from the ITC (more recently replaced by Ofcom), Glencross served as chairman of the Disasters Emergency Committee.

Anthony Hayward