Dyke Vision: Greg Dyke

It's two years since Greg Dyke took charge at the BBC. In a rare and revealing interview, he tells Louise Jury about the joys – and the miseries – of the job
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Greg Dyke kicks disdainfully at the carpet of his light and airy office in Broadcasting House. It is a dull beige-brown, and he hates it. Being Greg Dyke, he laughs as he explains how much he hates it; but it is a significant dislike none the less. He wants colour, he wants excitement, he wants risk-taking. What he doesn't want is a sensible, institutional carpet.

For a man who has scaled the heights of the corporate ladder (from LWT, TV-am and Pearson to director-general of the BBC – in which capacity he celebrated his second anniversary yesterday), Dyke has a remarkably uncorporate air. He may have shaved off his beard when he became D-G, but he is not exactly pinstripe man. Neither does he have the lean, mean, hungry air of some ambitious types in television. His round face beams broadly as he tells stories and cracks jokes. If he trusts you, he talks quite freely, almost to the point of indiscretion.

Of course, with an estimated personal worth of £15m, he can't really be the chirpy, cheeky, ordinary chappie of commonplace perception; but there's more than a grain of truth in the caricature. Greg Dyke is not a man prone to bouts of agonised introspection or depression.

Which makes it all the more surprising when he suddenly confesses to having been quite miserable during his first year at the BBC. When the subject comes up, his normal train of non-stop chatter suddenly slows down. He chooses his words with care, as if treading on eggshells, anxious not to cause offence but also unwilling to pretend that all was well. "I enjoy it more now than I did in the first year," he says. "But I didn't enjoy it a lot in the first year."

He diplomatically refuses to link his unhappiness explicitly with the legacy of John Birt, his old mate from the days of London Weekend Television and his predecessor as director-general. But the organisation that Dyke joined two years ago had just been through eight years of Birt's management consultants and restructuring, and Dyke makes no secret of the fact that he found it a demoralised place, full of anxious staff. Inevitably, the demoralisation rubbed off; in fact, Dyke sounds as if he hated it. "I just found it very..." (he pauses, searching for a tactful word) "... unhappy. I didn't," he adds, "find team-work at a senior level."

Today he is happier. He swiftly got rid of much of the organisational structure he had inherited from Birt – "daft things" such as staff having to pay £15 to get a CD out of the BBC library, and says that more will go. "No doubt there are still some [daft things] around, but I don't get the complaints I got when I first came."

He set a target of cutting administration overheads from 24 per cent of expenditure to 15 per cent by 2003-04, and is on target to meet that a year early. Around £200m has been freed up for programming as a result.

Meanwhile, he has kicked up a storm with his mission to increase the representation from ethnic minorities among staff – and has absolutely no apologies for his description of the BBC as "hideously white". "It rather galvanised the place," he says, though he admits that there has been more change in front of the camera than behind it. As a consequence he believes that the BBC is still failing to serve ethnic minorities. (He also thinks that it lets down the young and people in the north of England.)

But he is working to do something about that with senior colleagues, who, like him, now seem to be enjoying themselves. He resisted temptations to wipe out the high-flyers of the Birt era, but has assembled a team more closely fashioned in his own image. (Lorraine Heggessey, the feisty controller of BBC1, is an obvious example.)

"I think that the people who now sit on the BBC executive [the day-to-day management team] are not only interested in looking after their bit, they're interested in the BBC as a whole," he says. "People who come along to the executive are quite surprised how collegiate and fun it is." But, he adds: "I'm not sure we've got that everywhere in the organisation."

That's what he wants, though. Fun, fun, fun. Though he can be serious in between his chuckles and one-liners, Greg Dyke is certainly of the view that life is too short to be miserable. And insofar as he has a management philosophy, it is management without fear. "In creative organisations, if the staff aren't very happy or are disillusioned with the organisation, it affects what they do, it affects your output. I want to make this a can-do organisation." Why? Because of the audiences. "The only point of doing it is if you believe that by making it a more exciting, vibrant place, what you'll get out of it is better programming."

It sounds woolly, yet his enthusiasm is infectious. Conversely, you really wouldn't want to be the person who got in his way. Staff report that when he is annoyed, they know it; but, they add, he bears no grudges and swiftly moves on. He says that he has had a yellow card printed with the words "Cut the crap and make it happen". He intends to brandish it at anyone with the temerity to suggest that something can't be done. He told his staff this in an address he gave them yesterday – and said that he would make similar cards available to anyone who wanted them. It is the gesture of a confident man.

Dyke is delighted that the BBC is being described as "reinvigorated". In fact, it's on a roll. Last year, BBC1 overtook ITV in terms of overall audience share for the first time since commercial television was launched in 1955 – and won critical acclaim for series such as The Way We Live Now (a Trollope adaptation) and for Conspiracy, the award-winning drama starring Kenneth Branagh as the Nazi general Reinhard Heydrich.

He also mentions a number of brilliant performances in history, science and natural history – but concedes that the BBC has fared less well in recent years where arts programmes are concerned. There are certainly many critics who would agree with this. Accusations that Dyke's BBC has dumbed down its arts programming – dropping its coverage of the Whitbread prize, commissioning programmes such as Rolf on Art, and generally sidelining highbrow arts coverage into an élitist "ghetto" on digital television – have come from many quarters, including Lord Bragg and Gerald Kaufman.

Dyke responds robustly to such criticism, seeing it as evidence that the BBC is being brave and thought-provoking. "Rolf on Art was a much bigger risk than doing a documentary on Iris Murdoch," he says. "Who is going to criticise you for doing a documentary on Iris Murdoch?"

Despite this bullishness, Dyke is more realistic – and self-critical – about his own successes than some others have been. He admits that the BBC's current perceived success owes much to the parlous financial situation of his commercial rivals (ITV's advertising revenue fell by 12 per cent in 2001), a situation that is unlikely to improve as they lose audience share, and therefore advertisement revenue, in a fragmenting market.

In five years, he says, there is no way ITV will be able to afford to do what it could five years ago. Shows such as Pop Idol, which has been winning 10 million viewers, are "fun"; but "ITV lost 7 per cent of its audience last year and Pop Idol doesn't solve that". The BBC, he claims, will become more important, not less – and will retain a market share as high as 30 per cent even by the end of this decade. None the less, he takes no great joy from ITV's current travails. "I'm not sure it's in our interest for ITV to be having a bad time," he says.

Dyke's critics have accused him of lacking vision and of having no comprehension of the much-hallowed concept of public-service broadcasting. He admits that he never uses the phrase, and if you ask him about his vision, he falters slightly before referring you to the formal definitions ("quality, distinctiveness, range and diversity and impartiality") used by the BBC in its submissions to government.

Those working close to him believe that he has come to accept the public-service ethos while remaining loath to express it. What he will express is the view that the BBC is quite simple, really: "In the end, we collect a lot of money and the aim is to provide really good services for the people who pay the money."

And do they? "We can do better," he says. There are programmes, such as ITV's Bloody Sunday drama, that he believes the BBC should have done, and others that he would have had doubts over. He breathed a sigh of relief when the Nevada boxing board refused to allow Mike Tyson to fight. That would have created a dilemma. Some might have argued that a public-service organisation would have had no business broadcasting such a morally bankrupt spectacle. But boxing is not illegal, and the BBC is heavily committed to broadcasting it. Moreover, Lennox Lewis is a British world champion, and the fight would undoubtedly have drawn an audience of young black males – whom the BBC badly needs. Had the price been right, Dyke believes the BBC should have shown it.

Meanwhile, allegations have continued that the BBC is dumbing down – something that makes him cross. He compares the complaints to the "What did the Romans ever do for us?" sketch in Monty Python's Life of Brian. He can point to any number of acclaimed programmes, but a "but" will follow.

His own big "but" is that the BBC hasn't rocked enough boats. "I'm a bit disappointed in the last two years how few programmes have been controversial. One of the roles of a broadcaster is to challenge. I'm a bit disappointed we haven't challenged enough."

Fundamentally, however, he is an optimist. He believes that the BBC should be "the most creative organisation in the world" (another thing he told his staff yesterday), and that the changes necessary to achieve that are all possible.

Will he be the person to see them through? He is now 54 and, despite reports that he is only on a five-year contract, is on a one-year rolling contract until he is 60 (unless he or the BBC wants out). He certainly does not aspire to follow John Birt into "blue-sky" thinking for the Government. ("John will do it brilliantly," is all he will say about this. "He's one of the sharpest minds I know.") Abstract analysis is not Dyke's forte. People are. In the coming year, he intends to get out and talk to his staff more – which was certainly never Birt's style.

Eventually, he agrees, there might come a time when he has done everything he can do and the organisation would benefit from someone else. "In which case I would leave. I'm lucky, I'm not here for the money," he says.

But he won't be leaving yet. "I still think I can give things to the organisation."