Margaret Douglas: Former BBC chief political adviser
Monday 25 August 2008
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.
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.
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