Michael Grade: Belt and red braces

His critics fear a drift to the loucher shores of liberalism. His fans within the corporation see him as a leader in the Dyke mould, a good bloke with a keen eye for the business of making good television. But as the new chairman of the BBC, his principal tasks are to appoint a DG - and weed out his well-meaning but ignorant board
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Now that he has reached the top of broadcasting's pyramid, Michael Grade, the new chairman of the BBC, has to do more than just plant a flag. The 61-year-old brings tremendous assets to the post.

His ebullient style will go down well with many BBC insiders - not least in entertainment and sport departments (his first job was as a sports reporter on the Daily Mirror) and among whom Greg Dyke was hugely popular. He understands television, having a keen eye for original and innovative programmes. He was an early champion of EastEnders when he was BBC director of programmes, and, as controller of BBC1 in 1985, he devoted a day of airtime to the Live Aid concert. He also showed a ruthless streak when he dumped the much-loved but too-little-watched Doctor Who from the schedules. Grade's passion for Charlton Athletic, for ages south London's poor sporting relations but now contenders for European football, marks him out as a Patron Saint of Lost Causes, which sentimentalists may admire. His tenure as chairman of the National Lottery operator Camelot is a reminder of his populist associations.

Grade's appointment has been almost unanimously well received, and the moral force behind his mandate will help him to take some tough early decisions.

But there are dangers, too. His near-universal popularity is as much a sign of the corporation's desperation as of genuine welcome. The Beeb was already expecting a renewed onslaught from the Daily Mail and its allies. Notwithstanding the paper's grudging good wishes yesterday, the appointment of the "pornographer-in-chief" will intensify the concerns of those who see the corporation as standing on the loucher shores of liberalism. Grade makes no effort to hide or bury his resentments. The animus that provoked the celebrated 1987 falling-out with John Birt, and the memorable MacTaggart Lecture at which he vented spleen on Birt's corporation, survive nearly 20 years on. His anti-Birt contribution to a recent BBC film on the old DG, deriding Birt's "Trappist-monk style of management", was testament to that, as was his vigorous response when asked on Friday whether he was a Birtist or a Dykeist. ("Very much a Dykeist.")

As a revered and skilful scheduler, he may find it frustrating to avoid dabbling in those black arts which the corporation's management needs somewhere, but not in its chairman. Moreover, while his appointment has been widely applauded by many of the more "showbiz" elements in the corporation, Grade will need to convince the powerful news arm - many of whom favoured David Dimbleby for the chairmanship - that he has their best interests at heart.

One opportunity to prove his journalistic commitment will come early - with the appointment of a new director general. This week's interviews for the post have been put on hold, and a new flurry of applications is expected. To create a "balanced ticket", Grade will be under some pressure to appoint someone with a journalistic background, possibly in radio. This might be good news for the acting DG, Mark Byford. Roger Mosey, the head of TV news, should be persuaded to run too. Contrary to popular belief, Grade's appointment may not bode well for one favourite for the top job, Mark Thompson. If, as is widely expected, Channel 4 and Channel 5 merge, Thompson will doubtless be looking for a new job at the corporation, to which he has devoted most of his working life. But he may be disappointed: Grade will be keen that the appearance of a Channel 4 takeover at the corporation is avoided.

Michael Grade is most strongly associated not with his parents, but with his uncle. Certainly Sir Lew, who shared his taste for cigars, demands a special place in the Michael Grade story - more obviously influential than the mother who abandoned him at 15 months or the father, the son of Russian immigrants, who fell victim to a stroke when Michael was only 23. But these events were formative. Lord "Bernie" Delfont, another uncle, remarked to the young Michael: "You've got to get serious, young man. Your father's not going to be the power he was - and we need you to learn the business." Learn it he did, to the extent that he later was to become chief executive of Delfont's company, First Leisure. Grade made a reputation in City circles as a champion schmoozer, if not a "details man". But he also made his unsentimental side apparent when he promptly sold off most of the company's assets, including Blackpool Tower.

In television, he came to public attention while at London Weekend's entertainment arm, where he thrived making programmes with Bruce Forsyth and Stanley Baxter. An unhappy but lucrative foray to the United States followed, working with Norman Lear in Hollywood, before he was tempted back to the BBC.

But it was his decade as chief executive of Channel 4 which did most to impress Grade on the public mind. Grade's tenure was a perfect opportunity to display his consummate schmoozing skills. With the channel's future hanging in the Tory government's hands, Grade was unstinting in his passion for the funding formula to be altered. At party conferences up and down the coast he would hold court at the "Channel 4 Breakfast", where he would buttonhole politicians, seeking support for the cause. By 1997, he had succeeded; the funding formula was phased out - and in his moment of greatest victory, Grade left the channel.

His stint at Channel 4 also ensured a familiarity and closeness with independent producers, who will now be expecting a greater share of the corporation's output. Every year, the BBC shrugs off its failure to comply with the requirement for 25 per cent indie-generated output. Those shrugs can now be expected to transform into commissions.

Since leaving Channel 4, Grade has focused most of his professional attentions on his business interests. But his personal life has come to make a great claim on his enthusiasms. He has become a father for the third time - which has provoked a good deal of soul-searching about his shortcomings as a father to his two grown-up children - since marrying his third wife, former publisher Francesca Leahy. His time at First Leisure was far from triumphant, and as a board member on the Millennium Dome, he is closely associated with New Labour's most public flop. But he is never regarded as a party crony. It was attempts to disprove accusations of cronyism which were blamed for many of the errors made by his predecessor at the BBC, Gavyn Davies. That, thankfully, is one cross which Grade will not have to bear. Nevertheless, Grade's task will not be easy. In the arcane and competitive multimedia world, he will need to show more business acumen than he's previously shown. With ITV demanding a "top-sliced" share of licence fee revenue - claiming that they make public service broadcasting - the imminent charter renewal will be tricky.

To get things done, he'll have to weed out his well-meaning but ignorant fellow-governors. Given their dual function of regulators and cheerleaders, the governors have flunked in the past. Their annual report on the corporation's activities increasingly reads like a press release, and the minutes of governors' meetings - publicised by the Hutton process - reveal an ineffective bunch, wholly in thrall to a management which knows how programming works. Grade acknowledged the problem when he said this week: "The regulatory role of the governors is in urgent need of clarification, if not repair... it works, but it's not as good as it should be."

Moving the governors out of Broadcasting House - which Grade will surely do soon - will be only the first, necessary, step in the long quest to regain trust in the corporation. In time, Grade may well have to change the entire amateur and part-time nature of the board. If his unsentimental tenure at First Leisure is anything to go by, he just might have the braces to do it.

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