Stephen Hearst: BBC executive who defended the Corporation from attacks by Thatcher’s government

When Margaret Thatcher's Government launched its assault on the BBC's ethos and assumptions in the early 1980s, Stephen Hearst was among the most prominent of the Corporation's senior figures who mounted a rearguard action in defence of its independence. To a large extent they failed; for although the battle continues, vital ground has been ceded. Yet there are many who believed – and still do believe – that the Reithian heritage was worth fighting for.

In 1982, after 30 years with the Corporation, Hearst had been asked by Alasdair Milne, the newly-appointed Director-General, to be his special adviser. Rumblings of discontent were already to be heard from Whitehall, especially over coverage of Northern Ireland and the Falklands War, and there were calls for the BBC to be reined in. Milne saw the need to have on his team a man steeped in the values and traditions of public service broadcasting, and eloquent in expressing them.

In a later article about television and education, Hearst wrote: "Public service broadcasting is likely to go down as the greatest British cultural invention of the 20th century." A former colleague commented: "He yearned to make the BBC live up to what he expected of it."

The issue came to a head in 1985 when the Government appointed the Peacock Committee to make recommendations on the BBC's future, in particular to examine whether it should accept advert-ising. The questions had been raised in eading articles in The Times – owned since 1981 by Rupert Murdoch, an opponent of state-funded broadcasting.

Milne responded with a passionate speech characterising the BBC as a guardian of civilised values untainted by commercialism. Hearst, never afraid to criticise his boss (he once accused him of behaving like Stalin by peremptorily firing an executive), told him he had been too defensive. "All defensive ideological battles in the 20th century have been lost," he maintained. "You have to boot the ball back into your opponent's penalty area." (The metaphor was significant: he was a dedicated football fan and Arsenal supporter.)

Milne was due to make another speech the following week, and Hearst wrote into it a direct attack on The Times and its proprietor, in effect defining the battle lines of a struggle still being waged today. "Who is the more likely to serve the public interest?" he asked. "A world broadcasting organisation which is considered the world over as the leading producer of quality programmes or The Times, whose recommendations, if acted upon, would have the practical effect of enabling its owner, Mr. Rupert Murdoch, to acquire some of the most valuable broadcasting action in the UK?"

In the end Milne was outmanoeuvered by the BBC's critics and dismissed by the Board of Governors in 1987. Hearst had himself retired the previous year, shortly before the institution he cherished was to undergo two decades of cathartic change.

Stephen Hearst was born Stephen Hirshtritt in Vienna in 1919, the son of a Jewish dentist. He planned to become a doctor but his studies were interrupted in 1938, when the Nazis took over Austria – a circumstance that fuelled a passionate support for Israel that remained with him. He fled to Britain, studying horticulture until the outbreak of war, when he was interned briefly. On his release he joined the Pioneer Corps, serving in Italy and Palestine.

On leaving the army he was admitted to Brasenose College, Oxford, to study history. After graduation he began writing newsreel scripts for the BBC as a freelance until in 1952 he was taken on to the staff as a documentary script writer and later a producer of arts programmes in the television service.

It was a time when many ambitious young graduates, Milne among them, saw their future in the burgeoning field of television, and competition for senior posts was intense. Hearst was more diffident than many of his colleagues at Lime Grove: his soft, faintly accented voice spoke more of a central European intellectual than a thrusting, power-hungry executive.

Not until his late 40s, in 1967, was he given his own department, as head of arts features. Here he resisted what he termed "coffee table book culture" and later wrote: "There are few instances in which wooing a popular audience for its custom has not resulted in a lowering of standards ... In television you can appeal with equal success to the best and to the worst in human nature. Appealing to the best takes longer. Appealing to the worst is easier and cheaper."

He played an important creative role in several admired programmes and series that achieved success without pandering to popular tastes, notably Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation and Alastair Cooke's America. Cooke became fond of him: "He is an idealist," he commented, "with the temperament of a headmaster." Leslie Megahey, a producer who worked under him, characterised him as "a formidably moral man".

In 1972 Hearst transferred these qualities – and his expertise in classical music – to radio, as controller of Radio 3. Some saw this as a retreat from the hurly-burly of the higher-profile medium; but if he thought of his new job as a calm backwater he was disabused. His moves to increase the audience base, making the music and explanatory material more accessible, provoked opposition from many long-time listeners. When he tried to move in the opposite direction, scheduling more operas in the evening, he was criticised for elitism.

He rode these storms for six years, and by the time he left Radio 3 it was by common consent in better shape than when he took it over. Among his innovations were simultaneous transmissions on radio and television of the popular Promenade Concerts.

He stood down in 1978 because he was asked by Ian Trethowan, the Director-General, to head the Future Policy Group, charged with what would today be called blue-skies thinking about the direction the Corporation should take. Neither he nor Trethowan was aware that such decisions would to a large extent be taken out of the BBC's hands by a government determined to clip its wings.

Although he contributed papers to several books and conferences on television and society, he wrote only one book himself. Called 2000 Million Poor, it derived from his being assigned in the early 1960s to spend nine months making films for the United Nations on international aid and development, in support of the UN Development Decade.

What he saw affected him deeply. He wrote: "I will try to describe what it is like to hold a loser's ticket in the lottery of life to a reader who may not realise that he has drawn a winner's number from birth." And he concluded: "To stand by and do nothing would be a denial of our own civilisation."

Hearst was awarded the CBE in 1980. After retiring in 1986 he set up as an independent producer and consultant.

Stephen Hirshtritt (Stephen Hearst), television producer: born Vienna 6 October 1919; producer trainee, BBC 1952; documentary television script writer 1953–55, writer and producer 1955–65; executive producer, Arts Programmes Television 1965–67; Head of Arts Features, Television 1967–71; Controller, Radio 3 1972–78; Controller, Future Policy Group 1978–82; Special Adviser to Director-General, BBC 1982–86; CBE 1980; married 1948 Lisbeth Neumann (one son, one daughter); died London 27 March 2010.