Margaret Douglas: Former BBC chief political adviser

In 1951, when Margaret Douglas joined the BBC, it was still very much a man's world. Douglas, a policeman's daughter from Islington, started out at the most junior level, but by the time she retired, more than 40 years later, she had risen to Chief Assistant to the Director General, one of the most responsible jobs in the corporation.

Douglas born in London in 1934. Her father was a sergeant in the Metropolitan Police; her mother came from the East End. She was brought up in Islington, and liked to call herself a "Blitz kid"; except for a year when she was sent to live with her granny in Glasgow, she remained in London throughout the Second World War.

She attended Parliament Hill Grammar School and was obviously very bright, but at 17, to the school's dismay, decided not to go the academic way, choosing instead to train as an office worker. As always, she had a rational explanation for her decision: she did not want to be a continuing burden to her parents. She also recognised that the only thing you could do with a degree if you were a woman at that time was to become a teacher, and that didn't appeal to her very much.

Douglas joined the BBC in 1951, starting in the lowest secretarial grade. Luckily, she worked for one of the many eccentrics around the place and thus enjoyed her early work in Broadcasting House. She went on the television production secretaries' course, then straight to Panorama where she became the production secretary for the producer Michael Peacock, under the dark sparkling eyes of Mrs Grace Wyndham Goldie, Assistant Head of Talks, (later Current Affairs), and the most important assistant head of a department that the BBC ever had.

Douglas became the princess of Panorama, the right hand of the producer in the gallery, and in the office, the wiper of noses, the stroker of egos, the calmer of the frightened and corrector of the inept. She was the woman who had to know everything and then next morning be first in the office to do the paper-work and clear up the emotional and physical wreckage of the night before. She was cool, efficient, hard-working and cheerful, and these were the qualities that carried her through her long career.

Douglas's arrival at the BBC coincided with the beginning of what was to be known as the Golden Age. It was an exciting, stressful, absorbing time. What made it special was the belief that anybody could do anything – although the impossible would take another 10 minutes. Mrs Goldie once said, "I have an idea in my bath and in a fortnight it is a national institution" – preposterous but more than half true.

Before the 1959 general election programme, Wyndham Goldie was given the task of running the first competitive challenge from ITN and she stole Douglas from Panorama. It was a strange coupling; Wyndham Goldie, the product of Cheltenham Ladies' College and Somerville, and Douglas, the policeman's daughter from Islington.

At Lime Grove Douglas worked on Panorama, Gallery, 24 Hours and was for years responsible for the coverage of party conferences. She went from short-hand typist to production secretary, researcher, director, producer, editor and then, for the last 10 years of her BBC career, Chief Assistant to the Director, later called Chief Political Adviser. This was a very senior job of great responsibility which she held through the tenure of three Director-Generals: Alasdair Milne, Michael Checkland and John Birt. With the first two, she would meet every morning, five days a week, to review whatever was important to the BBC.

Throughout her working life she dealt with political parties and politicians. From the 1960s to the 1990s she had more dealings with senior politicians than anybody else in the BBC. She met everyone from Macmillan to Mandelson, not forgetting Heath, Wilson, Macleod, Butler, Douglas Hume, Healey, Gaitskell, Callaghan, Jenkins, Crossman, Benn, Grimond, Steele, Ashdown, Kennedy, Thatcher, and Browns both George and Gordon, to name but a few.

It was a tough job. It is hard for an outsider to understand the sustained and vicious attacks made on the BBC by political parties, but Douglas combined a quick mind with long experience and patience in dealing with the often absurd complaints and the bad temper of the people she dealt with. Michael Checkland remembers her strength and steadfastness when the BBC's reporting of the Falklands Warcame under attack, as well as her stout defence of the independence of the BBC's news and current affairs.

But it was difficult for politicians to get angry with Douglas, or to try to portray her as part of the Beelzebub that was the BBC, because she so clearly had integrity. She was slight in build, with beautiful manners, calm in discussion and lacking aggression. She performed a tough job, almost with diffidence.

She was also the last stop before the DG in many questions of reporting politics, especially in general elections. One reporter from the north of England said, "When it is really nasty and they are threatening you with the Tower and losing your job, Margaret was the only one who listened, made you feel better and told you what you could do".

For some years she was close to Terry Lancaster, sometime Political Editor of the Daily Mirror – a happy time. When she married him in 2000 she told me, "Thank heaven nothing has changed". They were a powerful couple, both quick-witted, argumentative in the nicest way, hugely knowledgeable about politics with a whiff, later on, of world-weariness.

Douglas's last job after retiring from the BBC, for five years, was to be Supervisor of Parliamentary Broadcasting at the Palace of Westminster.

John Grist

Margaret Elizabeth Douglas, television producer, director and executive: born London 22 August 1934; Editor, Party Conference Coverage, BBC 1972-83, Chief Assistant to Director-General 1983-87, Chief Political Adviser 1987-93; married 2000 Terence Lancaster (died 2007); died London 20 August 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
One Direction's Zayn Malik gazes at a bouquet of flowers in the 'Night Changes' music video
'Free the Nipple' film screening after party with We Are The XX, New York, America - 04 Feb 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished
tvReview: The latest episode was a smidgen less depressing... but it’s hardly a bonza beach party
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Manager

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity to...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Manager - Production

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Trainee Managers are required to join the UK's...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Manager

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will maximise the effective...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission : SThree: Hello! I know most ...

Day In a Page

The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss
Tony Blair joins a strange and exclusive club of political leaders whose careers have been blighted by the Middle East

Blair has joined a strange and exclusive club

A new tomb has just gone up in the Middle East's graveyard of US and British political reputations, says Patrick Cockburn
Election 2015: Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May

Election 2015

Meet the top 12 wacky candidates seeking your vote in May