How the 'bloke next door' cut the crap, and gave the BBC back its sense of fun

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The day Greg Dyke joined the BBC four years ago, a survey revealed that BBC regional staff believed the only things they had to look forward to were lunch breaks and redundancy. When asked what they enjoyed about their job, many replied: "Nothing."

John Birt, Mr Dyke's predecessor, was seen as a distant bureaucrat obsessed with procedure, not programmes. It is a measure of how the morale of the corporation has been transformed that yesterday hundreds of staff braved the cold to protest against their director general's departure. "Never in a million years would people have done that for Birt," one insider said.

Mr Dyke, the director general who retained the appearance of the bloke next door even after he became a multi-millionaire, will be sorely missed at Broadcasting House, BBC Television Centre and the many regional offices he made a point of visiting within months of his appointment.

But that is ironic, given that he was widely condemned as one of "Tony's cronies", one of Labour's "great and the good". He had been a Labour Party donor, so it is surprising that his departure from the BBC would be precipitated by a vicious fight with a Labour government.

Yet such a dramatic turnaround is typical of him. He was born in west London in 1947, the third of three sons of an insurance manager. He left grammar school with A-level maths and joined Marks & Spencer as a trainee manager. They "let him go" after four months. He joined his local newspaper as a trainee and organised a rebellion of poorly paid juniors, but then quit papers to go to York University as a mature student. He was in his thirties before he settled on a career in television.

But he climbed the ladder quickly at the old London Weekend Television (LWT) before joining the new TV-am - an organisation synonymous with its glove puppet Roland Rat - in 1983. He returned to LWT where he shared the financial windfall from LWT's takeover by Granada with other television luminaries such as Melvyn Bragg. They were unhappy at the deal, but became millionaires as a result. Mr Dyke's share was estimated at £7m.

He became chief executive at Pearson Television and chairman of Channel 5 before his controversial appointment at the BBC.

Mr Dyke has shaken the corporation up. Staff swarmed to his defence yesterday because, quite simply, he made the BBC a jollier place where people were excited to be making programmes again.

He made a series of changes under the heading, "Making it Happen," with, for instance, targets for employing more people from ethnic minorities. In a classic instance of Dyke plain-talking, he told the staff to "cut the crap" and had a series of yellow cards printed to berate anyone who used meaningless jargon.

Mr Dyke became known for cutting what he saw as unnecessary red tape. "I want to make this a can-do organisation," he said. He insisted on cutting costs - such as croissants at breakfast meetings - to put more money into programme making. This put the pressure on executives. But because he was more friendly and open than his predecessor, the organisation largely responded.

The big question mark was whether he understood the very specific requirements of a public service broadcaster. "Public service broadcasting" was a phrase he was reluctant to use and he could sound nervous if asked to define his vision for the corporation.

His critics say his instincts are those of the commercial television ratings-chaser and he was certainly keen to keep audiences happy. "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," he said. Certainly his eagerness to chase ratings alarmed many in Government who believed this was not the raison d'être of the BBC.

Yet government insiders insisted yesterday that what had saddened nearly everyone bar Alastair Campbell was that Mr Dyke had been exactly what the BBC required most of the time. "He's been an outstanding leader of his troops. He invigorated them and got the creative juices flowing and he brought in good people. Making Mark Byford deputy director general was a sensible thing to do and, whether it was a cynical thing for charter renewal or not, he resuscitated arts and culture and drama," the source said.

"But what Hutton has shown is that Greg's got to win 100 per cent, 95 per cent won't do. He's got energy and bite and he raised the morale in a way the BBC needed. But he also needed diplomacy and understanding about when to give." And perhaps diplomacy is not his style.

He will certainly be bitterly disappointed to be leaving in such a manner. He was on one-year rolling contract to do the job until he was 60, had he and the governors so wished.

Although he admitted that he did not enjoy his first year in office, when he landed in trouble for failing to sell an equity stake in Granada and the BBC lost the rights to Premiership matches to ITV, he has since been much more bullish. He always thought he had a lot to give. And as he pointed out: "I'm not here for the money."

Some thought he lacked the political sureness of touch that enabled Mr Birt to steer the BBC through the last process of charter renewal in 1996. But he had the political nous yesterday to realise his presence would make it harder for BBC journalism to rebuild itself.

None the less, Stewart Purvis, the former ITN chief executive, admitted yesterday that his friend of more than 20 years had hoped the governors would reject his offer to resign.

It will be little consolation to Mr Dyke now to know that he had at least achieved one of his aims. Speaking to The Independent two years ago, he admitted he was "a bit disappointed" how few BBC programmes had proved controversial. "One of the roles of a broadcaster is to challenge. I'm a bit disappointed we haven't challenged enough," he said. The danger now is that it may be impossible in future for the BBC to challenge at all.