Milne’s Cropper

Robert Kee

Two interesting questions are raised by Alasdair Milne’s book about his time at the BBC.[*] The first, more important but less interesting, is: what, if anything, is wrong with the BBC? The second is: what, if anything, is wrong with Alasdair Milne?

Milne’s answer to the second question seems to be ‘nothing much’ – which at least helps us with our own answer to the question. To the first he provides less an answer than some intelligent and sympathetic reasoning which successfully puts the question out of joint. As a broadcaster his heart, or whatever it is he keeps there, is in the right place.

The two questions are connected only because Milne was somewhat brusquely sacked as Director-General of the BBC after it had hit a number of rocks under his command, and this gave him the time and a sort of reason to write a book about his 33-year career in broadcasting. Much of it is written – or probably dictated – in the flatly-motivated manner of a school magazine. ‘Wheldon ... had built up a team ... whose loyalty to him and reputation in handling their material was unqualified ... Attenborough ... had a number of series of his Zoo Quest natural history programmes behind him ... Peacock had edited Panorama with a sure hand ... And when Peacock left there was the burly figure of Paul Fox ready to step into his shoes as Controller of BBC 1 ...’ Lumpen-paragraphs sit upon each other gracelessly, heavy with dull and often clumsily conveyed management detail. Michael Swann is a ‘man with a highly distinguished scientific background, a very sharp brain and clouds of pipe smoke’. Douglas Muggeridge goes off with Milne to the West Indies two pages after he has died ‘tragically’ of a brain tumour. Strange that a man whose clear and precise intelligence seems to sustain natural mandarin instincts should be content with such a non-mandarin style. But literary ability is not necessarily a prime requirement for the post of Director-General of the BBC – an accountant, after all, now occupies the post more successfully – and the central mystery lies elsewhere. The mystery is simply this: how could such an undoubtedly clever and experienced broadcaster, who in the Fifties and early Sixties had helped lay the foundations of much that is best in British television, come such a cropper at the zenith of his career, when the ability which had stood him in such good stead was obviously still unimpaired? As in all good mystery stories, the clues are sprinkled throughout. In this case, only the author seems unable to pick them up – which fact, of course, helps provide the solution.

Like many clever people, he proceeds as if everybody else’s mind worked in the same way as his own. He is impatient with everything except what he sees, and therefore does not see half of what is going on.

On the great day of his appointment he was due to spend the weekend at Castle Howard with the Chairman of the Board which had appointed him. It was a long-standing engagement. The combination of media attention on that day and bad weather in the North makes him want to get out of it. What does he do? He tells his secretary to ring up the Chairman and make the excuse that his wife is unwell. He sees nothing derogatory in this, even recounting it with some relish on an early page. He is an honest man, and to those who know him well a kind and a nice man. In the later pages of the book he tells the story of the various disasters through which he piloted his ship: that, for instance, of the Panorama libel action in which he had personally checked Panorama’s research, yet has to admit that the findings could not be fully substantiated when the case came to court. For months before the day, which he graphically recounts, of his summons to the Chairman’s office, broadcasting folk, and particularly some of those who wished him well, had been saying that ‘Alasdair’ was ‘not right as DG’. When the Chairman told him he was fired, he was ‘stunned’. It had not occurred to him that it was going to happen.

One small, rather painful incident during his tenure of office in which I was myself marginally concerned formed part of a rumpus at the time of the Falklands War. A perfectly straight surface account is given here of the rumpus and of my share in it: it was what went on below the surface that was quite interesting – the problems in the human mechanism of broadcasting which caused this part of the row – but with this Milne shows no wish to involve himself. Nor did he show any at the time. At least one of his lieutenants, now also ‘retired early’, was human enough to try and seek some revenge (foiled) for the disruption which I had caused by writing a letter to the Times. About this person, Milne reveals that as Managing Director of Television he had been ‘spending too much time trying to become a feature film mogul and not enough being in close touch with the Television Service’. Milne does not seem to see that this would strike a normal reader as a reflection on himself.

The tragedy is that Milne’s broadcasting reputation came from programmes like Highlight, Tonight and That Was the Week That Was whose very point was that they understood something about human beings and tried to get through to them as people rather than as recipients of broadcasts – which had been how the Television Service had at first been inclined to regard them, in an unimaginative extension of the Reithian tradition. But to help him in those days he had as collaborators people of very different casts of mind, people to whom he pays just tribute here. Grace Wyndham-Goldie added breadth to his vision and Donald Baverstock erratic flair. As DG, he was monarch of all he surveyed and could not see as far as he thought.

Certainly an unfair disadvantage under which he suffered was the need to be seen as Director-General in something of the old style of that office, at a time when it was no longer possible to be such a Director-General. He had responsibility not only for the content of two television channels, four national radio channels, 30 local radio stations, and the World Service, but for their practical management and for their vast and complex finances. Sir John Reith – whose image as the independent if quirky guardian of public service broadcasting still lingers in the consciousness of the country as an admirable inheritance – had one radio channel. Sir Hugh Greene, in his slightly clownish way, managed to sustain the illusion of omnipotent wisdom, but was probably the last Director-General to suggest that such a notion was viable for the office. His successors, none of them outstanding personalities, somehow held the floodgates shut. Milne, perhaps because he was more confident of himself, perhaps because of the ever-increasing flood of broadcasting, and certainly because in any case he was never the right man for the job, got swept away. The responsibilities are now distributed more tolerably, both for the individuals concerned and for the health of the organisation itself. The new Director-General is a managerial accountant; he has beside him, in a sort of trinity, one man mainly concerned with programmes and another who could well have been Director-General in the old style. The relationship with the Board of Governors may now be easier.

This Board itself, with its chairman in a position somewhere between that of a constitutional monarch and that of the President of the present French Republic, is also a relic of other times, as indeed is the notion of public service broadcasting which the whole arrangement enshrines. Does this then mean that this notion, too, has to go with the wind that is blowing through broadcasting? That government politicians should recently have been trying more confidently to exercise on the BBC the pressure which governments have always periodically tried to exercise, but to small avail, is perhaps a straw in that wind. Now that the air waves can be opened to Tom, Dick and Rupert, is ‘public service broadcasting’ any longer a relevant concept? Public service broadcasting once meant the special responsibility for standards of a monopoly independent of direct state control. With the ending of the monopoly, some restraints were lifted, and Milne, as a broadcaster, played his part in lifting them. But responsibility for quality in that supply of information, education and entertainment which the BBC was set up to provide is more important than ever in the world of Tom, Dick and Rupert.

[*] DG: The Memoirs of a British Broadcaster by Alasdair Milne was published by Hodder on 16 June (214 pp., £12.95, 0 340 42772 8).