Gareth Butler: Politics producer at the BBC
Thursday 06 March 2008
Gareth Butler was a notable producer of political programmes at the BBC, where he brought to his work an encyclopaedic knowledge of parliament and government and avoided, thanks to the gift of gentle understatement, any of the grandstanding or pomposity to which others with the same strengths might have succumbed. His death at the age of 42 leaves his friends and colleagues mourning a talent that enlivened and enhanced their own work.
His last job, as deputy editor of The Politics Show on BBC 1, allowed him to roam the territory he loved. The contours of politics always interested him as much as the frenetic activity on the mountain tops. He understood that interviews with leading figures were never the whole story, and that a clearly painted background was needed if they were to make sense. As a producer, he made that talent tell from the start. He had the kind of editorial brain that viewers and listeners deserve.
He began at the Corporation in two famous nurseries, which produced many powerful editorial figures and classy programmes. From current affairs in the World Service at Bush House he moved in the late 1980s to Anne Sloman's special current affairs department in Radio 4, working on programmes like Law in Action, Stop Press and The Week in Westminster. There, he learned the trade, and it was a natural graduation when he found himself moving along the corridor in Broadcasting House to The World at One and the hurly-burly of daily news.
Those of us who worked with Butler as a young producer in those days remember a calm understanding that was often a contrast to the panic that fast-moving programmes create in their wake. He would always find time to keep an eye on the cricket score (a test match run-chase would excite him almost as much as a juicy by-election), but never missed the point of a story. His journalistic scepticism came naturally, but it was laced with good nature and warmth. By 1995 he had become editor of The World This Weekend on Radio 4 – still an hour-long programme in those days – and was recognised as a valuable talent.
That was why Tony Hall, then head of BBC News, took him on as an assistant to do the kind of job that journalists often dread (or belittle), dealing with complaints, public speeches, strategies for programmes dealing with the shark-ridden waters of politics and those who are looking for blood. He survived the experience and emerged to make programmes once again. In particular he got, as well as television responsibilities at Westminster, a job that he considered a dream, editing the Radio 4 election-night programmes.
These are special events for all involved, wonderfully unscripted, always with the whiff of surprise, full of guts and life. Butler produced them all for Radio 4 in the new century – two general elections, an American presidential election, local and European elections – and loved their spirit and edgy drama. There is nothing quite like these nights. He understood how to sift the trivial from the important and how to spot a rogue poll, or a glib analysis, at a hundred paces. The most extraordinary facts would always be at his fingertips. For a presenter, his memory was a godsend, and his statistical skill and confidence a relief.
These abilities were hardly surprising. Before he joined the BBC, while working as a researcher at the House of Commons, he became joint editor of the 1986 edition of British Political Facts – that glorious compendium of 20th-century parliamentary and government statistics and lore – in the happy company of his beloved father David, doyen of British psephology, at Nuffield College, Oxford, who had published the first edition of the book in 1963. They produced three editions together, and the next would have been Gareth's alone.
He was educated in Oxford and at Abingdon, and then at Cambridge where he took a first in History at Gonville and Caius College. His family was notably close. With his two brothers, his father and his mother – the literary scholar and former Rector of Exeter College, Oxford, Marilyn Butler – he shared a natural enthusiasm for politics and public affairs that he would never think of questioning. Like the importance of cricket – he organised a BBC News team – or Arsenal, it was a simple fact, as obvious and incontrovertible as how many seats the Liberals won in 1906 or how many by-elections there were in Harold Wilson's first term of office.
Within the past few months Gareth Butler had decided to leave the BBC after 20 years, in search of a new challenge. At the time of his death he was excited about opportunities that might continue to stretch his talents and feed his hunger for politics.
His private life had taken a happy turn last summer with his second marriage, to Jess, and he enjoyed a close relationship with two children, Joel and Sacha, from his first. When news of his collapse and death began to circulate among his BBC colleagues there was a sense of disbelief, and then a terrible sadness that he and his family would be denied a new chapter in a life that had already produced so much.
Gareth Butler, television and radio producer and writer: born Oxford 3 May 1965; married Lucy Anderson (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 2007), 2007 Jessica Asato; died London 29 February 2008.
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