Profile: Onward with the duke of hazard: Marmaduke Hussey, old man of the Beeb

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The Independent Online
For all those who think of Marmaduke James Hussey as a prime contender for Monty Python's 'Upper Class Twit of the Year' award, there are as many who maintain that behind the bluff, patrician exterior and the blimpish mannerisms lies a shrewd, sharp brain and a talent for decisive leadership. It says much about 'Duke' Hussey that, as he enters the eighth decade of a turbulent life, after six high-profile years as chairman of the BBC's Board of Governors, a case can still be made for both views. The truth is that he is cleverer than he looks but not as clever as he thinks.

In his first five-year term with the BBC, charged with cleaning out its Augean stables, he so impressed the Government that last year he was asked to stay until 1996, when he will be 73. Yet can it really be a shrewd chairman who provokes his director-general to blurt out his pent-up frustrations in public, casting aspersions on Hussey's age and judgement, as the normally discreet Sir Michael Checkland did this week?

And was it decisive leadership to announce in July 1991 that Checkland would be replaced by his deputy, John Birt, in March 1993, creating a 21-month vacuum at the top, in which neither man feels he has a free hand? That foolish compromise left the corporation rudderless and vulnerable as the Government was preparing to take decisions about its future after its charter expires in 1996.

In Hussey's office at Broadcasting House, the first thing visitors spot is a sign on the desk urging 'Do it now', presumably a warning to himself to guard against a tendency to dither. He must now be ruing that he did not take the advice to heart when manoeuvring to replace Checkland.

Meeting him, the overwhelming first impression is physical. A giant of a man with a severe disability after losing a leg in the war, his halting advance across a room would be menacing were it not for his warm, disarming smile. His conversation is tinged with a sense of faint surprise that he should find himself where he is today. He has admitted that he was amazed when, holding down an indeterminate and undemanding executive post at Rupert Murdoch's Times Newspapers, he was telephoned in September 1986 by Douglas Hurd, then the Home Secretary, and asked if he wanted to be chairman of the BBC.

He had scarcely any previous experience of broadcasting and was unclear what was expected of him. 'What about a brief?' he ventured, plaintively seeking some tangible guidance from Hurd. 'You'll find out when you get there,' the minister chuckled.

What he found when he got there was a complacent, inflated bureaucracy demoralised by poor leadership and by sniping from the Thatcher government. He tackled the first problem by rapidly firing the director-general, Alasdair Milne. As for the second, he proved he was no government patsy by resisting Norman Tebbit's many sneak attacks on the corporation and by complaining about a police raid on BBC Scotland in connection with the Secret Society fracas.

Checkland was Hussey's choice to succeed Milne. He felt that, as an accountant, Checkland would be more likely to take an axe to the bureaucracy than the big-name contenders, who included Jeremy Isaacs and Michael Grade. Five years on, he saw that he had been mistaken: the BBC was still overstaffed, despite some slimming down. He wanted to get rid of Checkland when his contract expired last March, but the director-general's supporters on the board thought this too brutal, and Hussey acceded to the disastrous compromise of letting him stay one more year.

'He's very loyal to his people when he thinks they're doing well,' says a former colleague. 'But the other side of that is that when he turns against someone, it's for keeps - there's no way of getting back into favour.' Checkland has clearly been a victim of that process, and this week's outburst suggests that he knows it.

The mechanics of Hussey's appointment as chairman are still something of a mystery. There are many members of the great and good who, on the face of it, had better qualifications for the job than a man whose career until then had been highlighted by a spectacularly botched attempt to take on the print unions when he was chief executive at Times Newspapers.

Probably the nomination had as much to do with his social as his professional connections. His wife, the former Lady Susan Waldegrave, is a lady-in-waiting to the Queen, who has visited their house for dinner and who lets him use the pool at Buckingham Palace for swimming, his favourite form of exercise.

Lady Susan is the sister of William Waldegrave, the minister responsible for public services and science, and through him the couple has an entree to the highest political circles. That is the power side of his social life; the other is his close friendship with a small group of former colleagues, mostly from Associated Newspapers, where he began his career. They meet at each other's houses, on holiday and for lunch at Brooks's, his London club.

The son of Eric Hussey, an Olympic hurdler and colonial administrator, he left Rugby soon after the war started and spent a year at Oxford before interrupting his university career to join up. As a platoon commander in the Grenadier Guards, his first - and last - taste of action came in February 1944 when he was badly wounded by machine-gun fire at Anzio, then captured by the Germans.

His leg was amputated crudely at a German field hospital, from where he was sent to Colditz, his back still full of metal. Seven months later he was repatriated because the Germans thought he was going to die. Although in and out of hospital after his return, he completed his degree at Oxford before joining Associated Newspapers as a management trainee.

He has always made light of his disability. 'Most of us in his condition would use a wheelchair,' says a colleague. 'He never does. If he wants to talk to someone, he makes a point of getting up and walking to their office.'

He went to Times Newspapers in 1971 with a reputation as a ruthless manager. His attempt to live up to this image contributed to the debacle that occurred seven years later. He had been hired to be tough, so tough he had to be - but

in the end not quite tough enough.

Under pressure from the parent Thomson Organisation to reduce over- manning and to introduce the new direct input technology that was commonplace almost everywhere except in Britain, he decided to use the 'big bang' technique. Unless the unions agreed to realistic terms, he would close the Times and Sunday Times indefinitely.

The deterrent failed to deter and the result was a costly year's closure of the two papers, ending in a resumption of publication with nothing concrete gained. One important reason for the failure was to do with Hussey's patrician nature. He is one of those aristocrats who do not understand when they are being a caricature of themselves.

He sees nothing patronising in saying, as he did last August in response to criticisms that he is aloof and dictatorial, that he is well tuned to the feelings of people 'in the lower ranks' because 'I have lunch in the canteen and ask them'. This week he boasted that he still called radio 'the wireless' and spoke of 'having a long natter with my old friend, the Governor of the Bank of England'. The first time he appeared on the BBC's See for Yourself programme with Checkland in 1988, answering viewers' questions, he caused hilarity by insisting that Checkland call him 'Dukie', without realising how embarrassingly twee the nickname is.

His affable mien led him to believe falsely that he had an understanding with the national leaders of the print unions before he closed the newspapers. He did not recognise the strategic reality that the power lay with the union leaders inside the building, and they were determined to resist. He even tried shock tactics. Before one critical meeting he removed his artificial leg and propped it behind his desk.

'He's a good company commander but not a divisional commander,' says a former colleague. 'You always had the feeling that he thought an important part of his job was taking care of the troops - his chauffeur was a former guardsman. But he had no battle plan.'

The best description of Hussey's tactics at the time came from the journalist Godfrey Hodgson, who used P G Wodehouse's cricket metaphor of a slow bowler who, finding his crafty spinners being flogged all over the field, tries to bowl fast instead - a pathetically doomed tactic. Hussey has often attracted Wodehousian allusions. He has been called Woosterish, but a more apt comparison is with the pig-fancying Lord Emsworth, particularly since Hussey, who lives in Somerset, is president of the Bath and West show.

After the collapse of his attempt to break the unions, Hussey was given less onerous responsibilities at Times Newspapers, which was sold to Rupert Murdoch the following year. If you were asked to produce a photofit of a man likely to get up the nose of the ferociously anti-aristocratic Murdoch, Hussey would be him; yet to everyone's surprise he was one of the few top executives asked to stay on, being given the task of organising the Times's 200th anniversary celebrations. His influence with Buckingham Palace assured that the Queen visited the paper and that the Prince of Wales attended the commemorative dinner at Hampton Court.

A few weeks ago Hussey bumped into an old friend in Broadcasting House and they discussed a recent report on hospitals by a committee he had chaired. 'The trouble at the Times,' he said, 'was the unions; the trouble with hospitals is the doctors; and the trouble with the BBC is the bureaucrats.' He has always been good at defining problems, but as he gets older, he grows no more adept at solving them.