Oliver Whitley - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Oliver Whitley

Keeper of the BBC's conscience who was sacked but came back to be acting Director-General

Oliver Whitley, a former Managing Director of External Broadcasting and Chief Assistant to the Director-General, was regarded by many as the keeper of the BBC's conscience.

Oliver John Whitley, broadcasting administrator: born Halifax, Yorkshire 12 February 1912; Head of General Overseas Service, BBC 1950-54, Assistant Controller, Overseas Services 1955-57, Appointments Officer 1957-60, Controller, Staff Training and Appointments 1960-64, Chief Assistant to the Director-General 1964-68, Managing Director, External Broadcasting 1969-72; married 1939 Elspeth Forrester-Paton (four sons, one daughter); died Benderloch, Argyll 22 March 2005.

Oliver Whitley, a former Managing Director of External Broadcasting and Chief Assistant to the Director-General, was regarded by many as the keeper of the BBC's conscience.

His father, J.H. Whitley, after whom the joint industrial councils were named, declined the customary viscountcy when he retired in 1928 after seven years as Speaker of the House of Commons. Nor would he accept the proffered knighthood (KCSI) for his chairmanship of the Royal Commission on Labour in India. Then, in 1930, he was appointed Chairman of the BBC and was among the best in the corporation's history, serving until his death in 1935. Oliver Whitley's mother, Marguerite, was the daughter of one of Garibaldi's officers, Giulio Marchetti.

Whitley inherited his grandfather's courage and his father's austere integrity. Despite outstanding service he steadily refused to allow his name to be submitted for inclusion in any honours list. Early in his career he resigned, and was then sacked from the BBC on an issue of principle in which he was in dispute with the Director-General. Yet five years later he was welcomed back and eventually rose to become the acting Director-General himself.

He was born in 1912 in Halifax, where his father was the Liberal MP, and educated at Clifton and New College, Oxford, and after qualifying as a barrister, and shortly after his father's death, in 1935 he joined the BBC.

At the outbreak of the Second World War the Monitoring Service was established at Wood Norton, near Evesham, with Richard Marriott as Director and Oliver Whitley as the Chief Monitoring Supervisor. Together they managed a well-knit polyglot team whose reporting and analysis of foreign broadcasts and the Nazis' internal communications were making an important contribution to the war effort.

In 1941 Marriott and Whitley, both dedicated and efficient men, considered that a plan to move the Monitoring Service from Wood Norton to Caversham Park near Reading would be unwise. Invaluable members of the specialised staff would be lost, thus breaking up the esprit de corps, and reception conditions would be technically worse. The Director-General, F.W. Ogilvie, Sir John Reith's sadly inadequate successor, was adamant that the move must take place, despite misgivings expressed by his deputy, Sir Cecil Graves, and other senior staff. Marriott and Whitley both felt the decision was insensitive, whatever reasons Ogilvie might have had for it, and decided to resign and enlist in the forces.

The situation was aggravated when Ogilvie went to Wood Norton to justify the decision and tell the monitoring staff they must obey orders, but excluded both Whitley and Marriott from the staff meeting. Moreover his address, according to the monitors (who were notably expert at accurate reporting), was such a travesty of the managers' reasons for resignation that Whitley, before departing, gave vent to his indignation in a confidential note to each of the Governors telling them what he thought of Ogilvie's conduct.

Oliver Whitley forgot that (under a system ironically devised by his father) the Director-General's secretary doubled as clerk to the Governors. She intercepted his complaints and passed them to Ogilvie. A dispatch rider straightway drove to Wood Norton with instructions to Whitley to return his pass and bicycle immediately, and to leave without working out his notice.

However the Governors were not prepared to support Ogilvie in the enforcement of his discipline and two of them - Lady Violet Bonham Carter and Harold Nicolson - wrote Whitley friendly letters hoping that he would return after the war. A few months later the Governors decided it was time for Ogilvie himself to resign.

In fairness to Ogilvie there were good but secret reasons for the decision to move to Caversham, though whether he was fully privy to them at the time is not clear. Winston Churchill had learnt through Otto John, later a notorious double agent, of the German manufacture of heavy water at Peenemunde, and was contemplating moving the Government to Evesham if London should be subjected to atomic bombardment. Accordingly the BBC had been warned it must be ready to vacate the area. In fact the Monitoring Service moved to Caversham, where it still is, in April 1943.

Whitley joined the RNVR, served first with the Coastal Forces in Scotland and later with Combined Operations in both Europe and the Far East. He had volunteered for one of the most hazardous roles - the command of a landing-craft rocket launcher. Marriott joined Fighter Command and won the DFC and Bar. After the war Whitley, like Marriott, had no trouble in rejoining the BBC, although the former Director-General had summarily dismissed him.

The BBC seconded Whitley to the Colonial Office Information Department to facilitate the establishment of radio in many colonies still awaiting independence. At that time the BBC had an unrivalled world reputation and the Government called on the corporation to lend staff to help set up broadcasting organisations modelled on BBC rather than on American commercial radio lines. The snag was that it was virtually impossible to collect licence fees in developing countries. The colonial administrators were unkeen to spend money on what some regarded as a frivolous optional extra, and in the event many colonial broadcasters had to depend on advertising for their revenue.

In 1949 Whitley returned to the BBC as Assistant Head of the Colonial Service and then rose steadily through a succession of posts in the External Services, as the World Service was then called. After nine years he moved to Broadcasting House to take charge of staff recruitment, training and promotion. His rectitude and fund of common sense helped to ensure that good people were appointed and promotions were fair.

He also established short residential courses for staff under consideration for senior management at a rural conference house near High Wycombe named Uplands. In addition to the BBC top brass he managed to attract outside speakers of great distinction to come to Uplands and lecture to those of us who were immersed in syndicate studies of complicated BBC problems in austere living conditions.

In 1964 Oliver Whitley became the Chief Assistant to the Director-General, Sir Hugh Greene. One of his duties was to handle the relations between the BBC and the political parties, never an easy operation, for each is inclined to believe the BBC is secretly in league with its opponents. He soon earned the respect of both the Government Chief Whip, John Silkin, and the Opposition Chief Whip, William Whitelaw. But not all political problems could be resolved by his tact and patent integrity. External events exacted their toll. "The nation divided always has the BBC on the rack" was a phrase coined by Whitley at this time and frequently quoted by others since.

Another duty was to put a brake on some of Greene's more impulsive actions. It was Whitley, for instance, who restrained Greene from his immediate instinct to resign when he learnt that Harold Wilson was switching Lord Hill of Luton overnight from the chairmanship of the Independent Television Authority to that of the BBC.

In 1969, when Greene felt that his pending second divorce did require his resignation as Director-General, Whitley was himself already within three years of the BBC retiring age. He was thus regarded as outside the running for the succession, although otherwise admirably qualified. Charles Curran was appointed DG, and Whitley returned to Bush House to the vacated position of Managing Director of the External Services. He was also appointed to act for the new Director-General whenever he was absent.

Whitley had long experience of Bush House problems, the main one of which is the recurring instinct of governments under economic pressure to slash the Grant-in-Aid that funds it, preferably with the support of an official review body. Such a one was the small committee headed by the financier Sir Val Duncan which reported in July 1969 with the élitist recommendation that the BBC's broadcasts abroad should be directed merely to English-speaking listeners of the educated and professional classes, in support of British diplomatic or commercial activities. Whitley's verdict on the Duncan Report in a note to the Foreign Office encapsulated both the Bush House ethos and his own philosophy:

The main value of the External Services is not that they may help to sell tractors or nuclear reactors, nor even that they may so influence people in other countries, nobs or mobs, as to be more amenable to British diplomacy or foreign policy. Their main value is that, because they effectively represent and communicate this British propensity to truthfulness or the adherence to individual right to the perception of reality, they help to increase the inherent instability of political systems based on a total inversion of morality and reality for ideological purposes.

The Duncan Report recommendation was quietly shelved.

In 1972 Oliver Whitley and his wife, Elspeth, retired to Oban, where he enjoyed gardening and wrote many perceptive reviews of books about broadcasting. His magisterial notice of Lord Hill's memoirs in The Listener in 1974 declared:

He describes the impressions made on himself and his fellow Governors by each of the members of the staff when they were interviewed for the post of Director-General in succession to Sir Hugh Greene.

Later, on another matter, he quotes from the minutes of the Board of Management, which are, of course, strictly confidential.

Whitley continued:

It is pertinent to ask by what logic it is reprehensible, as Lord Hill evidently regards it, for junior staff to "leak" BBC confidences to the press, but legitimate for the Chairman to publish BBC confidences as soon as possible after he has left.

From Whitley, father or son, such conduct would have been unthinkable.

Leonard Miall

* Leonard Miall died 24 February 2005

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