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

Voices
Mosul dam was retaken with the help of the US
voicesRobert Fisk: Barack Obama is following the jihadists’ script
Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
filmReview: Lucy, Luc Besson's complex thriller
News
A cleaner prepares the red carpet for the opening night during the 59th International Cannes Film Festival May 17, 2006 in Cannes, France.
newsPowerful vacuum cleaners to be banned under EU regulations
News
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
A polar bear’s diet is rich in seal blubber and half of its own body weight is composed of fat
i100
News
London is the most expensive city in Europe for cultural activities such as ballet
arts
Travel
Flocking round: Beyoncé, Madame Tussauds' latest waxwork, looking fierce in the park
travelIn a digital age when we have more access than ever to the stars, why are waxworks still pulling in crowds?
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson has rejected criticisms of his language, according to BBC director of television Danny Cohen
tv
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench appeared at the Hay Festival to perform excerpts from Shakespearean plays
tvJudi Dench and Hugh Bonneville join Benedict Cumberbatch in BBC Shakespeare adaptations
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Is this how Mario Balotelli will cruise into Liverpool?
football
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Desktop, Surrey)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst (Graduate, Helpdesk, Deskto...

Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost, Data Mining

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Junior Quant Analyst - C++, Boost...

Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Support, Help desk)

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Service Desk Analyst- (Desktop Su...

Day In a Page

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

Nick Clegg the movie

Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

Waxing lyrical

Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

Revealed (to the minute)

The precise time when impressionism was born
From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

Make the most of British tomatoes

The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
10 best men's skincare products

Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape