Lord Hussey of North Bradley

Patrician chairman of the BBC


Marmaduke James Hussey, media executive: born 29 August 1923; managing director, Harmsworth Publications 1967-70; chief executive, Times Newspapers 1971-82; joint chairman, Great Western Radio 1985-86; Chairman, Royal Marsden Hospital 1985-98; Chairman, Board of Governors, BBC 1986-96; created 1996 Baron Hussey of North Bradley; married 1959 Lady Susan Waldegrave (one son, one daughter); died London 27 December 2006.

Of the public appointments made by Margaret Thatcher when she was Prime Minister, few surprised the cognoscenti more than when, in 1986, she made Marmaduke Hussey chairman of the board of governors of the troubled and troublesome BBC. Only those close to the newspaper business had heard of this former chief executive of Times Newspapers, notable for leading the company into a showdown with the trade unions that ended in ignominious defeat, and eventually to the acquisition of The Times and Sunday Times by Rupert Murdoch.

At 63, Hussey, a large and bluff man who walked with difficulty after losing a leg in the Second World War, seemed to be drifting towards placid retirement. Then, out of the blue, came the call from Douglas Hurd, Thatcher's Home Secretary. Hussey's first reaction was that nothing in his experience had prepared him to run a large and notoriously fractious broadcasting organisation; but he was persuaded to accept. "What about a briefing?" the shocked Hussey enquired nervously. "You'll find out when you get there," Hurd replied.

It did not take him long to find out that the BBC was disorganised and poorly led, and only four months after his appointment he fired the Director-General, Alasdair Milne. His initial five-year term as chairman was marked by further controversy and rancorous disputes, both internal and external. Yet he was asked to stay on for another five turbulent years, until he was well into his seventies. He believed that his great achievement was to leave the BBC as a more stable organisation than when he arrived, with its future reasonably secure. When he stood down in 1996 he was created a life peer, Baron Hussey of North Bradley.

If staff at Broadcasting House identified in him the stern but patronising manner of a colonial governor dealing with unruly natives, it was because it was in his blood. His father Eric Hussey, an Olympic hurdler, made a career in the Colonial Service, principally in Africa. By the time he was six the young Marmaduke, although born in Surrey, had spent four years of his life in Uganda. But when his father was posted to Nigeria he remained in England, living mainly with relations. He was sent to a boarding school in Hampshire and then to Rugby, where he excelled at sport and won a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford.

He went up to Oxford in 1942 but, after a year, left to join the Army as an officer cadet, becoming a lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards. In January 1944 he was posted to Italy and almost immediately saw action at the Battle of Anzio. In an assault on enemy trenches he was badly wounded in the legs, hand and spine by machine-gun fire, and taken prisoner by the Germans. At a field hospital a German doctor amputated his right leg because the wound had become infected. After several months in hospitals and prison camps in Germany, he was repatriated in an exchange of injured prisoners with a poor chance of survival.

The bullet in his spine proved a greater long-term problem than his amputated leg, and on his return to Britain he spent six months at an orthopaedic hospital in Roehampton. Not until 1946 could he return to Oxford. He graduated in 1949.

Joining Lord Rothermere's Daily Mail as a management trainee, he worked his way through most of the paper's commercial departments until he became a director in 1964 and managing director three years later. In 1959 he had married Susan Waldegrave, the daughter of Earl Waldegrave. She was 16 years his junior and in 1960 was appointed a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen, a post she held to the end of his life.

As managing director at Northcliffe House he gained a reputation in the industry as a tough negotiator. It was a necessary skill for dealing with printing unions which still had the ability to halt the presses on a whim to negotiate increasingly unrealistic deals on pay and manning levels. In 1971 he was recruited by Lord Thomson of Fleet, who a few years earlier had bought the Sunday Times and The Times and was losing far more money on the latter than he was making on the former. Hussey was appointed chief executive of Times Newspapers, with the long-term aim of introducing modern computerised production techniques that would slash costs and mean heavy job losses for printing staff.

By the mid-1970s the computers had been installed but lay idle, because the unions were determined to resist their introduction. In 1978 Hussey and his fellow directors - with the support of William Rees-Mogg, Editor of The Times - decided on a "big bang" solution, shutting down the newspapers in an effort to bring the unions to heel. Convinced that such shock tactics would cause almost instant capitulation, Hussey and his colleagues had devised no strategy on how to proceed if that did not happen. The closure lasted 50 weeks and, when the papers did finally return, the basic issues remained unresolved. A few months later, when journalists on The Times went on strike over pay, the Thomson Organisation decided to sell out. In a controversial bidding process, Rupert Murdoch bought the papers.

Most of the Thomson executives lost their jobs but Hussey was kept on as a full-time consultant - to the surprise of many, because his patrician, aristocratic manner seemed sure to alienate the no-nonsense Australian tycoon. He played no central role in the direction of the papers, though. His principal task was to organise The Times's bicentenary celebrations in 1986, where his royal connections came into play: the Prince of Wales agreed to be the principal guest at a banquet at Hampton Court. Hussey also became chairman of GWR, a West Country commercial radio station - his only involvement in broadcasting until the call came from Douglas Hurd asking him to head the BBC Board of Governors.

Hussey's own surprise at the summons was at least as great as that of media commentators when his appointment was announced. Just why Thatcher and her colleagues chose him to replace Stuart Young, who had died in office, has never been entirely clear. Did Rees-Mogg, who had just stepped down as the BBC's vice-chairman, suggest his name? Or was it perhaps his wife's brother William Waldegrave, a junior minister in the Government?

The Prime Minister and some of her colleagues were angry about aspects of the BBC's reporting of controversial issues, especially the conflict in Northern Ireland. There were suggestions that the licence fee, on which it relied for its revenue, might be cut or even scrapped. In any event, it was clear to them that the over-mighty corporation must be cut down to size. That was what Hussey had been appointed to do.

Firing the Director-General was the obvious place to start; but the new chairman could not get his way over Milne's successor. He pressed the case for the broadcaster David Dimbleby, but the governors defied him and appointed Milne's former deputy Michael Checkland, an accountant who had come up through the ranks as a financial controller rather than a programme-maker. A more significant appointment was that of John Birt, an executive with London Weekend Television, as Deputy Director-General. Birt, a hard-headed Liverpudlian, quickly made himself unpopular with the staff by introducing radical changes in news-gathering procedures. But he was supported by Hussey and the governors, who could see that his tough approach would find favour with the Government.

Having completed the restructuring, the ambitious Birt was keen to remove the word "deputy" from his title. Moreover Hussey was growing disillusioned with Checkland, who he believed was doing too little to control the BBC's high costs. The governors feared that this profligacy would count against them when the corporation's royal charter came up for renewal in 1996. Hussey, whose contract as chairman had been renewed for a further five years in 1991, paved the way for the more ruthless Birt to take over.

Hussey worked well with his new director-general for a time. The 1995 White Paper on the charter review guaranteed the BBC's continued independence and licence-fee funding beyond 1996. Thus both men could be said to have succeeded in protecting the future of the corporation against political forces that had at one time seemed bent on destroying it. But the last two years of Hussey's second term were marred by an increasingly bitter rift with Birt, who has a talent for making enemies.

Their most ferocious argument was over an interview with Diana, Princess of Wales broadcast in 1995, in which she criticised Prince Charles and the rest of the Royal Family. Birt told Hussey about the interview only a few hours before it was aired, recognising that the Chairman's sympathies and connections with the Royal Family would lead him to try to prevent its broadcast. Hussey never forgave him, and both men were harsh on each other in their post-retirement memoirs. Hussey believed that Birt lacked judgement and interpersonal skills. Birt, for his part, wrote of his former chairman:

He was more of a 19th- than a 20th-century man, more colonial administrator than modern manager, and he distrusted analysis, preferring to live on his wits and instincts.

In his book Chance Governs All (2001), Hussey wrote of himself:

I have always enjoyed being thought a fool - at least not to be clever. It gives you an immediate advantage over those around you.

A 1992 profile in The Independent probably got it about right. While conceding that some saw him as Monty Python's Upper Class Twit of the Year, the anonymous writer concluded: "He is cleverer than he looks but not as clever as he thinks."

Yet, although some found "Dukie" Hussey a Woosterish figure, his personal courage in the face of physical disability was never in question. He walked with a stick, with a curious gait emphasised by the circling motion of his natural leg, itself partly paralysed. Sometimes, if he wanted to disconcert a visitor to his office, he would remove his artificial leg and prop it against the wall behind him. He refused to be confined to a wheelchair and, although often in pain, hardly ever took painkillers. He said he would drink a glass of whisky if the discomfort threatened to become unbearable - and a second if the first didn't work.

Michael Leapman

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