Corporation turns to cautious Byford to steady the ship

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Indy Politics

In the words of one of his colleagues, Mark Byford is a "BBC lifer" - a bluff Yorkshireman who has dedicated his career to the institution which he professes to "love to bits".

As the Beeb faces its most profound crisis for decades, its governors have turned to a man seen as embodying the values that its critics say it now needs most - caution and a certain plodding respectability.

Mr Byford, who took over as acting director general yesterday, had long been tipped for the top job at the broadcaster he has served for 25 years.

He was seen as the perfect foil to Greg Dyke when he was appointed as his deputy shortly before Christmas with special responsibility for editorial probity and complaints.

Whereas Mr Dyke had come into his role from the rough and tumble of commercial broadcasting, bringing with him a certain streetwise swagger, Mr Byford represented a more cerebral and measured broadcasting tradition.

Talking to The Independent days before the death of Dr David Kelly last year, Mr Byford said the strength of the BBC's reporting meant it was implicitly trusted by a global audience. "Audiences around the world recognise the BBC's journalism for its integrity, its authority, its commitment to strong analysis and debate," he said.

The 47 year old, who has five children, joined the BBC in his native Yorkshire at 21, after studying for a law degree in Leeds. Those who know him say the analytical skills of his legal training inform his view of journalism, claiming that, unlike his predecessor, he would not have leapt to the defence of the story which infuriated Downing Street without investigating the complaints first.

His father, Sir Lawrence Byford, was the country's most senior police watchdog as Her Majesty's Inspector of Constabulary and was responsible for investigating the handling of the Yorkshire Ripper case.

One former colleague said of Mark Byford last month: "There is a very careful, cautious side to him. Many journalists make snap impulsive judgements. He will look at the case carefully, lay out all the arguments and facts, then come to a decision."

Despite reputedly having little time for jokes, there is little of the po-faced technocrat about the Yorkshireman. He lists his interests as including Leeds and Southampton football clubs, the New Forest, cathedrals, fell walking, the seaside and rock music. His Who's Who entry lists his club as Yorkshire Cricket Club.

As head of the World Service, a post he held until last month, he dedicated a day of broadcasting to HIV/Aids in a move seen as refocusing the BBC on its public service ethic. The devout Catholic, who has made his way up through posts such as head of regional news, is said to be energetic in handing out praise but also possessed of an inner steel when it comes to making difficult decisions.

He is locked into a dispute with the NUJ over the sacking of two Arabic service journalists and also made the decision to stop the broadcast of a Newsnight investigation into work done by Betsy Duncan Smith for her husband, Iain, while he was Tory leader.

When he was appointed last month to the role of the BBC's editorial enforcer, Mr Byford, who separates himself from the metropolitan chatterati by living in Winchester, was seen as the safe pair of hands to help see off any assault on the broadcaster's independence.

He had long swatted aside any questions about whether he wanted the job of director general, a post he has been linked with for at least five years. The acting director general was rumoured to be John Birt's choice as his successor to the top BBC job.

One colleague said yesterday: "He was always the internal candidate, the guy steeped in the timeless values of public service broadcasting. He may not be the most dynamic character but at a time like this, it's a no-brainer as to who is most likely to steady the ship."



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