Dignity and Impudence

Oliver Whitley

  • A Variety of Lives: A Biography of Sir Hugh Greene by Michael Tracey
    Bodley Head, 344 pp, £15.00, September 1983, ISBN 0 370 30026 2

Described as a biography, this is also a detective story. Repeatedly Hugh Greene’s BBC colleagues are quoted, anonymously, as being unsure as to what were or are his values, his principles, his philosophy. Occasionally someone doubts if there were or are any. Once, we are told, in an oblique attempt to find a clue to the elusive pattern of his motives, he was asked to say with whom in the English Civil War he could identify himself. Would a lover of liberty, women, wine and hard news have been a Cavalier or a Roundhead? I remember the occasion. The answer was as inconclusive as perhaps the question was misconceived. Nevertheless, the episode made me turn later to Buchan’s Life of Cromwell to refresh my memory of the character of Thomas, Lord Fairfax, who, like Greene, had friends in both political camps. Turning idly to the seemingly unpromising character of Cromwell himself, I could not help being struck by the aptness to Greene of phrase after phrase in Buchan’s final appraisal of the Lord Protector and regicide. ‘Few minds have had a more invincible candour.’ ‘He was never out of hearing of the common voices of life.’ ‘One talent he possessed in the highest degree, the power of recognising and appreciating facts.’ ‘He was first and foremost a man of crisis.’ ‘He believed in diversity of station ... as congenial to human nature and as giving stability to society.’ ‘His tolerance was based on the same principle.’ ‘His mind was wholly unspeculative, and he never felt the compulsion, which others have felt, to weave his views into a harmonious system of thought.’ The reader will find all these items in the identikit portrait which Michael Tracey constructs.

Greene was good to work for, and with, above all because he liked diversity among his associates. We were each perfectly free to weave our own views into a harmonious system of thought, if we wanted to, while he relied on his unpretentious carrier-bag of personal, practical rights and wrongs, do’s and don’t’s. It is characteristic that Greene should commission a young and comparatively untried man as his biographer and give him so much help and freedom. In so doing, he has served himself and the reader well. Here is the sympathetic, but not uncritical wherewithal to form a fair impression of an important and deeply interesting person. I would not expect altogether to agree where Mr Tracey writes about things which I experienced. His disparaging description of Sir William Haley as the curator of outmoded ideas and conventions obscures the fact that it was Haley who introduced the Home, Light and Third Programmes, ending the programmatic paternalism bequeathed by Reith. Shy and aloof from the staff in general though he was, he had his own kind of charisma. Elitism, whether you like it or not, is a godparent of art, and he was regarded with loyalty and respect. Tracey describes the BBC at that time as ‘administered for the most part by nostalgic old men, whose rheumy eyes saw only the glories of the past’: at best, this is caricature, not history. ‘By its nature broadcasting must be in a constant and sensitive relationship with the moral condition of society,’ an important sentence, is attributed to Sir Arthur fforde, whereas it or ginated in the Pilkington Committee’s report and was drafted by Richard Hoggart, then a member of the committee. The phrase ‘the political establishment’ is used several times. It seems to me portentous and vague. I suspect that if it had to be defined, it would fall out of use. The whole political establishment is said at one point to have wanted Greene replaced as the BBC’s Director-General: I don’t believe that this was true at the time in question, or at any other.

Without question, the most extraordinary thing in this book is the author’s report that Harold Wilson now says that ‘it never occurred to him that there would be any adverse reaction in the BBC’ to Lord Hill’s move from the Chairmanship of the ITA to the Chairmanship of the BBC: an event described by David Attenborough as like Rommel taking command of the Eighth Army. The truth of this whole matter may, I suppose, be indefinitely hidden among rival conjectures, for it is evident from Tracey’s account that at least one person who should know how and why Wilson did what he did has had a lapse of memory. My conjecture is that the versions of Lords Bowden and Hill are to be believed and that Wilson, wanting to find a preferment for a widely-respected ex-Lord President of the Council, offered Bowden the vacant Chairmanship of the BBC. Bowden was not willing to be as embattled in retirement as he knew the BBC Chairman was always likely to be internally and externally. So Wilson, nothing loth to administer a shock and a sustained lesson to an organisation of whose real or alleged errors he kept a careful record, invited the Conservative Hill, but without any accompanying exhortation, to move to the BBC and offered the peace-loving Bowden the less exposed position thus vacated. In assessing Wilson’s disclaimers of intent ever to appoint a Labour politician to the BBC, here recorded by Tracey, it may be remembered that Bowden’s reputation as Chief Whip, then Lord President, rested partly on the kind of magnanimity and political detachment which makes translation to non-political responsibility easy for the person and acceptable to the public. During the Labour Party Conference in 1965 I had occasion to visit a Downing Street basking in the absence of all senior politicians, and remember being told by the Prime Minister’s, Principal Private Secretary, in a tone in which I thought I detected admiration and appreciation, that Herbert Bowden had not gone to the Conference, ‘so apolitical has he become’.

This biography illustrates dramatically the fact that those who want the BBC to be an efficient, purposeful and happy organisation must do what they can to avoid the teaming of incompatible Chairmen and Directors-General. The improbable convergence of opposites into the fruitful symbiosis of Sir Arthur fforde and Sir Hugh Greene, here well described, may seem like one of nature’s most accidental quirks. But this shouldn’t obscure the folly of throwing together two people who want to do each other’s work. It follows that the instruments which seek to define the interlocking functions of the BBC Governors and of the Executive should not be so precise, so comprehensive or so imperative that little is left for adaptation by the two persons who actually hold the offices of Chairman and Director-General. And, last but not least, that the Governors must recognise their vested interest in the gaining and holding by the Chief Executive of something precious, to which they themselves, remote and temporary, can hardly aspire – the high regard of the staff. This he is unlikely to have under anyone who insists on being an executive chairman.

Readers will form their own opinions about the book’s frequent references to ‘old-fashioned, middle-class’ attitudes and values. It appears that, like the concept of public service itself, they were ready for decent burial, so that their place could be taken by people and ideas younger, classless and professional. As one worked with Greene on the problems that crowded in day by day, it didn’t seem as simple or as dismissive as that. He had close Tory friends as well as others of the opposite persuasion. The Chairman who won his affection most was an ex-headmaster steeped in Dante. It is a British High Commissioner that he describes to Tracey as ‘one of the greatest men I’ve ever met in my life’. Perhaps this is just part of the unsolved conundrum, the national debate adjourned without a division, in which modes, manners and characteristics have adjectives attached to them like luggage labels, the same word – ‘middle-class’, ‘Christian’, ‘Victorian’ – meaning the opposite to different people. I am biased. I have always feared that the enthronement of professionalism, once defined as ‘high competence in a limited sphere’, would in due course show this monarch to have been over-promoted. And I would be better pleased to have on my headstone ‘a middle-class do-gooder’, currently a term of abuse, than the kind words attached to my name in this book.

Be that as it may, I commend A Variety of Lives. I admire it, as I have admired the man who is its subject. I am grateful to have been a bit of ‘the diversity of station’ which he and my illustrious namesake liked to have around. The volume will sit, outnumbered but not out-shone, alongside those written by or about the other BBC giant. Incidentally, my phone went dead too, not long after Hugh Greene’s, when I felt bound to tell the other one that my colours were nailed to Greene’s mast and that this meant that I, too, thought there were human qualities more important than dignity. ‘Then there’s nothing more to be said,’ and the phone in the flat in Lambeth Palace banged down, ending a friendship of more than thirty years – or at any rate its outward manifestations.