There was a moment yesterday, as I was listening to the unctuous tones of Peter Mandelson on Radio 4's World at One, when I suddenly went right off my lunch. Is there anything more repellent than the sound of a former commercial television researcher turned politician holding forth on the shortcomings of the BBC? Mr Mandelson said he hoped to see a return to "precision" in BBC journalism and an end of the "tabloid" culture of the Today programme. High-minded talk from the man who once rang me on my mobile phone from a mystery location to explain his own "disappearing" act at the time of the revelations about his mortgage. Meanwhile, Greg Dyke, once Mr Mandelson's fellow journalist at London Weekend Television, has done the decent thing and fallen on his sword.
In this unfolding drama, the relationships between the main players go back many years, to John Birt's reign as head of current affairs at London Weekend Television in the 1970s. Mandelson was a researcher on the trail-blazing Sunday-lunchtime Weekend World programme, then presented by Peter Jay, and Greg a highly regarded producer on the London Programme, edited by Barry Cox, now a close friend of Mr Blair (and deputy chairman of Channel 4). Every Friday, Mr Birt, Mr Cox and Mr Dyke all played football together in the staff team, much to the annoyance of us ambitious female journalists.
My own relationship with them started in 1975 when I joined the company and Mr Dyke was executive producer of many of the programmes I presented there, from late-night satire to more populist early-evening fare. I followed Mr Birt to the BBC in 1988 at his request, and for nine or so years I thrived in the cloistered world of the BBC executive.
I sat with Mark Byford, announced yesterday as acting director general, on the committee set up to lobby - successfully - in favour of renewing the Charter. But John Birt, for many reasons, never got to grips with the stifling bureaucracy that forms the pyramid of power in the huge multi-media organisation that is the BBC. He was brilliant at predicting and championing the new technology. He rightly promoted 24-hour news channels and bi-media reporting. But John's ideas seemed to generate more layers of management, not less.
He was also, crucially, somewhat lacking in inter-personal skills, and staff morale plummeted. The eccentric chairman, Duke Hussey, would call me up and host a lunch for a group of us in the BBC canteen once a month, listening intently to all the predictable whingeing, and always bringing a governor with him. John could never face these PR exercises, preferring to make his thoughts known through a series of policy statements or "edicts" as the work force referred to them.
Greg's appointment as DG marked the start of more transparency within the BBC. As an editorial supremo, he thrived on staff feedback and was prepared to trim waste and put more money into programmes. On the night Greg's appointment was announced, I saw him having dinner with Melvyn Bragg in The Ivy - he came straight over and said in typical Greg fashion: "What do you think? I bloody showed them, didn't I?"
He was referring to the intensely hostile press he had endured, which had implied that if the man responsible for Roland Rat became DG it would be the end of the BBC as we knew it. It was class war at its most unpleasant, something I, too, know only too well, as neither Mr Dyke nor I bother with niceties, and although he hasn't been to Eton, Oxford or Cambridge, he is a highly accomplished journalist and a born leader.
What the events of the past few months have shown is that Greg too, for all his popularity, has signally failed to deal with the cumbersome reporting structure within the BBC. He has been a brilliant front man for the organisation, but behind the scenes there still exist plenty of relics of the old-style management, including the board of governors.
During his tenure as DG, Greg faced minor criticisms over lack of arts coverage from the relatively compliant board. But as television ratings have soared, his old work-mates John Birt and Peter Mandelson have not lost any opportunities to bend the ear of the Prime Minister with what they see as the journalistic shortcomings of the BBC. It was a serious error not to apologise for Andrew Gilligan's report on the day that Downing Street objected to it. But by then the battle lines had been drawn in what the Prime Minister and Alastair Campbell regarded as biased BBC coverage of the Government's handing of the war in Iraq.
The lesson that Greg should have learnt back then is that all programme editors should be personally responsible for any errors in reporting, and they should be corrected immediately, not discussed in endless memos and e-mails up and down the corridors of power for weeks, while a long-term position was hammered out and everyone concerned protected their own backs. Serious failings occurred within the leadership of the Today programme and at the top of the news and current affairs directorate. These are the people who should have resigned, back then.
The reason they did not is because of the macho culture that exists in news and current affairs, something Greg himself disapproves of, but did not castrate. Listening to Today, and the aggressive posturing of John Humphreys, can be a depressing experience, and it is interesting that no female presenter, from Sue MacGregor to Martha Kearney, ever sounds at ease in the bear-pit.
It is Today's macho idea of leading and creating the news, rather than reporting it, and the Government's equally macho demands for full apologies and blood on the carpet that makes the resignation of Greg Dyke so utterly depressing.
Last April, I saw an advertisement for a new BBC governor. The headline read: "Do you care about the future of Public Service Broadcasting?" One of the requirements was "experience in the creative industries, including programme making". As I do care about the BBC, and have spent more than 25 years working in television, and I think that the current governors are largely anodyne, inexperienced and ineffectual, I applied.
I made it down to the last three, and underwent a 90-minute interview with Gavyn Davies, an official from the Department for Culture Media and Sport and a headhunter. In the event, the ballerina Deborah Bull (a lot of programme-making skills there!) was appointed and when I saw Greg next, he said: "You'd have been too much trouble." Of course, he was right.
Now the governors have accepted the resignation of Mr Davies, the man best placed in terms of his political connections to lead the BBC into its Charter renewal negotiations. His deputy, now acting chairman, the compliant Lord Ryder, has quickly issued the second, more grovelling apology that makes Messrs Mandelson, Campbell and Blair feel like real men. No doubt, Mr Birt will be reflecting on the rise of his protégé Mr Byford, a man who has spent all 24 years of his working life since he left Leeds University in the service of the corporation.
It is imperative that the BBC remains robust, independent, and a benchmark of quality in the world of journalism. Without Greg Dyke at the helm, that will not only be less fun, but a great deal more difficult. In the meantime, the governors just carry on as before, having seriously weakened any argument for their continued existence.Reuse content