Profile: Birt in a skirt?: Liz Forgan, hot tip for number two at the BBC

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The Independent Online
One evening last month the crusty Lord Wyatt of Weeford disturbed the torpor of the House of Lords by launching a ferocious attack on - dammit - a woman. The offence, so unseemly that a fellow peer moved a procedural motion to silence him, came during a debate on impartiality in broadcasting.

'This fearsome lady,' Lord Wyatt declared, was 'not fit to be in charge of any programmes anywhere which have any bearing on matters of political or industrial controversy . . . . She is a staunchly left-wing person.' And he sought an assurance from the Government that 'there is no intention, ever, of employing Liz Forgan in any public affairs capacity whatever at the BBC'.

For those who know Ms Forgan, the 48-year-old director of programmes at Channel 4, 'fearsome' is almost the last adjective they would use about her. Formidable, certainly; determined, too, and passionately opinionated. Yet she is also funny, rosy-cheeked, disarming and emollient. If someone introduced her at a party as games mistress at Benenden, the upper-class girls' school she attended, you would not be surprised.

In any event, Lord Wyatt did not receive the assurance he sought, and his worst fears may shortly be realised. The hottest media tip for 1993 is that John Birt, the new director-general of the BBC, is about to appoint Forgan as his deputy.

Such predictions do not always come true, but if this one does, Forgan, already the most powerful woman in British television, would become, in addition, the most powerful woman in our central cultural institution and Birt's heir apparent. The last three directors-general of the BBC all served previously in the deputy's spot. There are many who, unlike Lord Wyatt, think she would be an ideal choice.

'She'd be an excellent counterbalance to John Birt,' says someone who has worked with them both. 'He finds it hard to communicate his ideas to people. She is straightforward and good at explaining things. John is opaque and mysterious. With her, what you see is what you get.'

Says another former colleague: 'She may be too lively for the BBC - but very good for it. She'd make a lot of people there uncomfortable.'

Liz Forgan was born in 1944 in Calcutta, where her Scottish father was in the Gordon Highlanders. At the end of the war he became a globetrotting oil executive and she went to boarding schools. In 1963 (the same year as John Birt) she went up to Oxford.

'She was never a typical Sixties student,' says a contemporary. 'The rest of us were starting to get into sex, drugs, rock'n'roll and flashy clothes, but somehow she seemed to be stuck in the Fifties.' Friends were not surprised when she canvassed for the Conservatives in the 1964 election. Since then she has, as Lord Wyatt observed, moved to the left, but she has no formal political allegiance.

Her first job in journalism was on an English-language paper in Tehran, where her father was then working. In 1970, she returned to England and worked on the Hampstead and Highgate Express before joining the Evening Standard and becoming its chief leader-writer.

Her appointment as women's editor of the Guardian in 1978 came about because of the paper's Byzantine sexual politics. Peter Preston, the editor, on his guard against the 'Guardian woman' stereotype of the militant feminist, has sought to appoint editors to that section with a range of experience beyond women's journalism. Forgan, who was then writing mainly about politics, fitted the bill.

Yet her initial ignorance about women's issues quickly changed to a strong feminist commitment. In an interview with the Observer in 1989, she admitted: 'Working at the Guardian opened my eyes to the political, social and sexual experiences of women. I realised what a closed life I had led.'

Brenda Polan, whom Forgan plucked from the sub-editors' table to be fashion editor, believes her conversion came at a conference on feminism in Berlin in 1979.

'She came back a convinced feminist, and the page reflected that.' She introduced the Naked Ape column, a brutal compilation of sexist remarks made by men. She began to argue volubly with the features editor, Richard Gott, who would criticise articles as 'overly strident'. Her unshakeable belief in her judgement meant that she usually won.

Yet she has a lighter side. She commanded loyalty from her team by throwing frequent parties and occasionally exhibiting what a former colleague calls 'a bouncing, giggly, Benenden style of humour'. Sometimes she would raid the fashion editor's cupboard of samples and get dressed up for a laugh.

A few years ago there was talk that she might return to the Guardian as its first female editor. There was also a suggestion of a talk show for the BBC, but Birt was not keen.

'If she does go to the BBC, she'll be one of the better appointments,' says Paul Bonner, who was director of programmes at Channel 4 when Forgan joined in 1981 as commissioning editor of factual output, before its 1982 launch. 'She's terrific with people. There was a lot of hostility to her at the beginning at Channel 4, because she had no television experience. But she grew with the job and won people over.'

The manner of her appointment was famously serendipitous. She had gone to interview Jeremy Isaacs, the channel's founding chief executive, to find out how he planned to implement his public commitment to foster 'more programmes made by women for women'. At the end of the interview he offered her the job.

In his book, Storm Over 4, Isaacs says that, on his side at least, it was not as spontaneous as it appeared. He had already decided to bring in a senior person from outside television, and he admired the Guardian women's page. As for Forgan, some old colleagues maintain it was rare for her to do interviews herself. 'It was probably a case of their hidden agendas meshing,' observes a knowing friend. 'She's extremely ambitious.'

She plunged into her new world with enthusiasm and almost instant success. 'She did find a genuinely alternative way of doing things,' Bonner says.

Her most notable innovation was, like much in Channel 4's early days, controversial. She and Isaacs decided that most news and current affairs programmes embraced a centrist, conformist view of the world that excluded a range of opinion at both ends of the political spectrum. The result, The Friday Alternative, was brilliant in patches, but was criticised for giving the left a more generous platform than the right. The board ordered the programme off the air after its first season.

Her desire to open the airwaves to a broad range of opinion has permeated her work. It led to her invention of the video box, where people walk in off the street and sometimes have their views broadcast. She initiated Right To Reply, the first programme to allow viewers systematically to have their say.

In forcibly promoting her views, she can appear high-minded. Says a colleague: 'She uses the word 'principle' so often that we've considered putting in a swear box and getting her to put a pound in for charity every time she says it.'

Much of her time was - and still is - spent in battling the regulatory authorities. One of her most exotic victories was in the case of the flavoured condoms. In a documentary about the rubber industry, a condom manufacturer said to camera: 'I've got banana-flavoured condoms, I've got strawberry-flavoured condoms, I've got liquorice-flavoured condoms - but you should taste the raspberry.' The watchdogs of the Independent Broadcasting Authority ruled that the sequence should be cut, but after Forgan's vigorous argument they let everything stay except the last six words.

On a loftier plane, she defied a judge who had ruled against a plan to broadcast highlights of the trial of Clive Ponting for alleged breaches of the Official Secrets Act, using actors. More recently she lobbied against a provision in the 1990 Broadcasting Act requiring ITV companies to be impartial on major issues - a provision that Lord Wyatt loudly advocated. Her campaign succeeded only in gaining slight modifications.

One of the influential figures she persuaded to support her was John Birt, whom she has long admired. When he was being criticised by the BBC old guard shortly after his 1987 appointment as deputy director-general, she organised a 'friends of John Birt' dinner at the White Tower restaurant in Percy Street, London, to offer moral support.

She has been a vociferous defender of the BBC in the debate about its future. Here she occupies even loftier ground than Birt, arguing not only that the BBC should be allowed to continue doing what it does and be properly funded, but also that it should eschew current commercial activities, such as its involvement in the satellite channel UK Gold. She also opposes Melvyn Bragg's pet scheme to share money from the licence fee between the BBC and worthy commercial broadcasters - although Channel 4 would certainly benefit.

Without a doubt, in espousing these causes she expresses sincere views. Cynics point out that, coincidentally, she has been establishing her credentials as a serious thinker about the BBC's future, and wonder mischievously whether this is another case of fortuitous agenda-meshing.

If she does now go to the BBC in the exalted role of Birt's deputy, some will say that only an unmarried woman, as she has remained, could scale such heights. The main prop of her personal life is a retired solicitor several years her senior, with whom she has enjoyed a long relationship. They spend holidays in her cottage in the Orkneys - they are there now - and do a lot of walking. Her other pastimes include jogging and singing in a choir.

There are arguments against her move to the BBC. Part of her role at Channel 4 has been as the conscience of its flamboyant chief executive, Michael Grade - as he has admitted. One thing John Birt does not need is a conscience. What he needs is a sound manager and someone who can calm the nerves of an institution reeling from recent morale-shattering blows, such as the farming out of many favourite programmes to independent producers. Somebody from inside the corporation might be a safer choice, rather than a Birt in a skirt.