Shock at the BBC 

20 May 2022 tbs.pm/75187

 

Cover of Behind the Screen

From ‘Behind the Screen: The broadcasting memoirs of Lord Hill’, published in 1974

About nine o’clock on the evening of 25 July 1967 my wife and I were dozing peacefully in front of our television set at home in Hertfordshire when the telephone rang.

The caller was Philip Phillips, the television correspondent of the Sun, who began by apologizing for disturbing our domestic peace, and went on to say that he had just heard a story, which he realized must be a load of nonsense, that I was to be appointed director-general of the BBC and that someone named Bowden would succeed me at the ITA. Would I comment? I promptly agreed that any story that I was to be director-general of the BBC was a load of nonsense. Later that night there were three or four more calls from the press which my wife answered with the standard reply that I was not available.

I rang the Postmaster General to find that he was at a public dinner. Eventually I tracked him down on the telephone and, when I told him what had happened, he said that he had heard a similar story from a Daily Mirror executive an hour or two before. Subsequently he rang to ask me to call on the Prime Minister at the House of Commons at half-past two the next day.

I duly presented myself at that time in the Prime Minister’s room at the House of Commons. Harold Davis, Mr Wilson’s parliamentary private secretary, who was in the outer office, looked astonished to see me. Punctually at 2.30 pm I was called in to find the Prime Minister in a relaxed mood and smoking a big cigar. Accompanied by Edward Short, the Postmaster General, he opened by saying that I had done a good job at Independent Television. The post of chairman of the BBC was, as I knew, vacant following Lord Normanbrook’s death. Would I go to the BBC in the office of chairman of the governors? The press had got wind of what was in his mind and it would be convenient if I could give my answer forthwith with a view to an announcement at midnight.

I was, to say the least, surprised. It is true that some two years or so before the Prime Minister, at that time involved in a fierce argument with the BBC, had said to me in light-hearted fashion at a lobby lunch that he would have to get me to take on the chairmanship of the BBC. I attached no importance to this sally and, in any case, the job was not vacant. One or two lobby men, standing nearby, took the remark more seriously than I did. Before the interview with the Prime Minister I had had an occasional hint that such an invitation was on the cards, as had one or two members of the press, but I could not really believe that it would happen.

 

Cover of the Daily Mirror

Cover of the Daily Mirror for 27 July 1967

 

A number of stories appeared in the press in the next few days suggesting that Harold Wilson had attached some strings to his invitation, that he had asked me to do a hatchet job on the BBC, that the whole thing was an anti-Greene move, and so on. In fact, nothing of the kind took place. What happened was that I received a straightforward invitation to take on a new job. I told the Prime Minister that in some quarters the reaction to my appointment would be explosive, only to be told by him that over the years we had both been used to that sort of thing and that we would just have to put up with it: the prospect of criticism did not worry him. The Prime Minister added that three additional governors would soon be appointed.

My immediate reaction was to ask for a little time to consider the invitation, although I appreciated from past experience the embarrassment to a government when the press has wind of an impending announcement. It is good sense in such circumstances to expedite the announcement. This kind of leakage happens with increasing frequency nowadays. So I was not surprised when the Prime Minister said that the circumstances demanded that there should be an early announcement; indeed, some time that evening. I decided to accept, suspecting that my decision would have been the same after a period of consideration. The invitation was irresistible. A Conservative Prime Minister had appointed me to the chair of the ITA, a Labour Prime Minister was proposing to recommend my appointment to the chair of the BBC. Flattery works with me as with most people. I had had a long association with the BBC as a broadcaster and I hoped that in the inevitable controversy to come this would stand me in good stead, an assumption that was proved in the event to be unfounded.

The Prime Minister had not given me a choice between an extension of my job at the ITA or the acceptance of the BBC chairmanship. If he had, I suspect that I might well have accepted an extension of the ITA chairmanship. When he asked me to take up my duties at the BBC at an early date, I replied that Robert Fraser had been under great pressure and was due for a holiday he badly needed in August, and that 1 September was the first practicable date. He agreed, adding that the announcement would be embargoed until a minute after midnight.

 

Two men laughing

Sir Hugh Greene (left), director-general of the BBC until his retirement from that post in March 1969 with Sir Robert Fraser, director-general of the ITA until October 1970.

 

The interview over, I returned to 70 Brompton Road, and, after binding him to secrecy, told Fraser what had happened. His reaction was a mixture of surprise and excitement. We had worked well together, we had become good friends, we had come to understand each other. The talents, if that is the right word, of one had complemented those of the other. But undoubtedly his powers had been restricted for he had lost some of the virtually complete independence of action and authority which he had enjoyed since Independent Television began.

Our immediate problem was how best to tell the Authority so that the first intimation did not come to them from the press next morning. Fortunately, there was to be a farewell dinner that night to the retiring deputy chairman, Sir Sydney Caine. I said that I did not want to complicate the dinner to Sydney and I thought it best to keep silent until the dinner and speeches were over. Incidentally, I was called to the telephone during the dinner by the Prime Minister’s private secretary who asked me to agree that the story be released earlier, at 10 pm, or even earlier (I believe, in fact, it was released about eight o’clock).

The dinner in honour of Sydney Caine followed the usual course. About ten-thirty, just as the fidgeting began, I got up and said that there was something that members of the Authority should know before reading tomorrow’s press. Tomorrow would be the last occasion on which I would be presiding over an Authority meeting, as I had that day accepted another appointment which was inconsistent with continuance in the chair of the Authority. I paused a moment and then added that I had that day accepted an invitation to become chairman of the governors of the BBC.

At first it was thought it was one of Hill’s little jokes. Then, following some confirmatory head-nodding by Robert Fraser, there went round the room a buzz of astonishment. Patrick Duncan exclaimed ‘no, no’. Lady Sharp looked as if she could murder me. According to my wife, Tony Pragnell, one of the deputy director-generals, was physically shaking with surprise. It had been quite a day. My last meeting of the Authority on the following day, however, proceeded as if nothing had happened. I made no further reference to my departure apart from agreeing that 31 August would be convenient for my farewell dinner.

 

Two men confer

Frank Gillard and Lord Hill at the news conference held on 10 July 1969 to announce the BBC’s plan for network radio and non-metropolitan broadcasting.

 

Kenneth Adam, at that time director of television at the BBC, writing twenty months later in the Sunday Times, reported that an emergency meeting of the Board of Management was called in the director-general’s room as soon as Sir Robert Lusty, the BBC’s acting chairman, returned from the Post Office with the news. According to Adam, Greene, sitting ‘behind his desk with a dark baffled face’, told his colleagues the dread news – and asked them if he should resign. Somebody said that ‘that would be playing “their” game’, another ‘if you go, we all go’. I have heard another and quite different account of what happened. Again according to Adam, at a dinner which Greene and his colleagues were giving that night to Tony Barber ‘even those the most abstemious drank more than usual so that a kind of frenzied gaiety took hold’. When the governors gathered for their meeting next morning, according to the same source, ‘several Governors were furious and made no bones about it’.

Next morning the press reaction was better than I had expected. The press headlines varied from ‘Lord Hill switches to the BBC’, in the Mail, to ‘Anger at the BBC over Lord Hill takeover’ in the Sketch. The Daily Telegraph put it soberly as ‘Hill leaves ITA to run BBC’ while the Mirror announced ‘The BBC gets the Radio Doctor’s medicine’. ‘I doubt if even the BBC can digest Lord Hill’, wrote Nancy Banks-Smith, while ‘Just how tough will Lord Hill get with Alf Garnett?’ was another headline. ‘Consultant or Sawbones’, ‘Is this the politicians’ revenge?’, ‘Sensible Choice’, and ‘No room for a strong man at the BBC’ were other samples.

Then came the press speculation. Was this a preamble to a proposal which Edward Short had been floating in speeches that there should be an amalgamation of the BBC and Independent Television? Was this intended to crush the freedom of expression in the BBC, something which Harold Wilson was believed increasingly to dislike? Did it mean that the BBC was to go commercial? As far as I knew it was just speculation with no foundation in fact.

Soon it became clear that the reactions of the hierarchy of the BBC were seeping through to the press, for Robert Lusty and Hugh Greene had not been silent. According to the Times Diary, the governors at their meeting the following day shared the strong sense of outrage which ran from top to bottom of the BBC at the news of Lord Hill’s switch of channel. It was a slap in the face for Sir Hugh Greene. With a touch of irony it was recalled that at the Labour Party Scarborough Conference in 1963, the year of my appointment to the ITA, Mr Wilson, ‘who was working himself in as the new Leader, pitched into the Tories for appointing Lord Hill as Chairman of the ITA’.

There then followed the usual congratulatory letters, many of them from within Independent Television at all levels. There were none whatever from the BBC hierarchy, governors or management.

Two or three days later, I was telephoned by a senior official of the Post Office whom I knew and who said that he had been lunching with a senior executive of the BBC who had prompted him to suggest that I should offer ‘an olive branch’ by phoning Greene at his home in Suffolk and inviting him to meet me. At first I bridled a little, retorting that the olive branch should be proffered by others. I had not spoken to the press or to anyone else: the bitterness had come from the BBC, not me. But I soon subsided and said I would think it over.

I rang Sir Francis Maclean [sic – McLean], BBC director of engineering, thinking he was the BBC executive the Post Office man had met. I later discovered it was Frank Gillard, director of radio. Maclean strongly urged that I should invite Greene, who was stunned by my appointment, to meet me for a talk, and I agreed. As soon as this conversation ended I rang Greene at his Suffolk home and suggested that we should meet halfway between his home and London. He did not drive, he said, and he suggested a meeting in London, to which I agreed, suggesting tea at my club, the Reform, a day or two later.

Our talk there was calm and frank, and not unfriendly. Whether he liked it or not – and clearly he did not – I had become a fact in his working life. We could, I believed, work out a way of living together in a civilized way, once the hubbub had died down. As far as I knew, there was no anti-Greene motive in the appointment: certainly there was none in my mind. He appeared to accept what I said and we parted on good terms, with Greene introducing me to my BBC chauffeur who, I thought, was in urgent need of a haircut.

 

Cartoon of Lord Hill as a weightlifter; the dumbbells he's balancing read 'LEFT' and 'RIGHT'

Cartoon from Punch magazine

 

About this time I received a letter from Robert Lusty suggesting that we should lunch together at the BBC and I accepted for Tuesday 8 August. In the meantime I arranged for two senior officials at the ITA to get in touch with senior officials of the Corporation to discuss certain mundane matters. For example, I already had a car supplied by the chemical company of which I was chairman. I did not need a BBC car, I told them. The reply was that it was unthinkable that a BBC chairman should move around on his duties in a car not belonging to the BBC: the present one was worn out and a new one would be bought.

Secondly, I already had a colour television set for the ITA had had one installed in my home only a few weeks previously. It was a hired set and a year’s rent had been paid in advance and therefore I should not need a BBC one for almost a year. The BBC was not impressed. It was their job to install their television set in their chairman’s home.

Thirdly, the BBC reacted violently to my intention to bring my own secretary. As I had already found out, it was customary at the BBC for the chairman to share the secretariat of the director-general. There was no room in Broadcasting House for an additional secretary, I was told. I thought this attitude unreasonable. Any man in a responsible position, even a non-executive one, needs to be served by his own secretary. Had the BBC offered to supply a personal secretary serving me and me alone, I should have accepted unhesitatingly. As they did not, I resolved that the remarkably efficient secretary who had worked for me for twenty years, and was my secretary at the ITA, should be asked to come with me to the BBC.

Then came the lunch with Robert Lusty. He spoke of the shock which the BBC governors had sustained at the news of my appointment. They had not been consulted. Indeed he, as the acting chairman, had been told only a few hours before the public announcement. He foresaw great difficulties ahead and he offered to mediate between me and Greene.

He launched into a comparison between a public service and commercial television, to the latter’s great disadvantage, asserting that only the former could really satisfy the public interest. To say he was patronizing would hardly be fair; to say he was sadly contemptuous would be nearer the mark. He suggested that at my first meeting he, not I, should take the chair; that I should come as an observer to see how the BBC did things. Although up to this point I had listened in silence, this last suggestion was more than I could take. I then told Lusty that I needed a secretary who was responsible to me and to no one else, that I could not accept the sharing of a secretary with the director-general or anyone else, and that I was not prepared to argue this point.

Between lunching with Lusty and my first day at Broadcasting House there was much to do. I cleared up what I could at Brompton Road, although I was clearly leaving a number of ends untied following the programme contracts decisions. I lunched as the guest of Sidney Bernstein, at the Ritz. He thanked me for teaching him how to engage in controversy without rancour; it was a very pleasant meeting with a remarkable man whom I much admired. I talked with my successor, Herbert Bowden, so clearly relieved to be departing from politics. I had tea at his suggestion with Harman Grisewood, formerly Hugh Greene’s chief assistant.

A little later Robert Lusty wrote to suggest that I should withdraw from an engagement into which I had entered for November, that of presiding over a Granada lecture at the Guildhall to be given by Fred Friendly of the United States. It would, he thought, be inappropriate for me to continue with an engagement under the auspices of a commercial company which I had accepted while chairman of the ITA. I declined to withdraw, thinking it would be discourteous to Granada as well as to Fred Friendly, whom I regarded as an important and powerful figure in broadcasting, engaged as he was on a campaign to promote public service television in his own country.

On the morning of 1 September I arrived at Broadcasting House to be received with a theatrical salute by the commissionaire. Greene was away on holiday in Suffolk. Amongst the engagements in the next few weeks were lunch at Television Centre to meet Kenneth Adam, Huw Wheldon, Paul Fox and others and a call on the Postmaster General who described to me Lusty’s reaction on being told of my appointment: dumb astonishment.

 

The Queen and Hill

H.M. the Queen with Lord Hill at the opening of the BBC’s fiftieth anniversary exhibition.

 

Incidentally, it did not help matters that the Postmaster General should have made a slip in referring to the new chairman of the governors as Charles Smith instead of Charles Hill. No doubt Charles Smith, then [sic – he died in 1965] general secretary of the Post Office Engineers, was on his mind! Short told me that after Lusty had returned to the BBC to tell the news, Hugh Greene had rung the Postmaster General to demand an immediate interview, adding that he could not undertake not to issue a statement if the interview were not granted. The Postmaster General agreed to see him, but not until late the following day. Next day Greene withdrew his request.

During this time I saw Lord Fulton, who would become vice-chairman from 31 January in succession to Lusty, and he promised his support in the difficult months ahead, a promise that he fully kept. He urged upon me a policy of gradualism. I visited the main London broadcasting centres. At the television news headquarters at Alexandra Palace I was received by the editor of television news, Desmond Taylor, and others. My first impression was that my reception by Desmond Taylor was cool; only when I got to know him better did I realize that this was his normal demeanour: I was seeing hostility where none was intended. I also toured Bush House and was very impressed with the director of external broadcasting, Charles Curran. I attended ITV functions at which I received gifts from ITA companies and managing directors. I went back to Brampton Road for drinks with regional officers. My first job as chairman of the BBC was to open an international broadcasting conference. I plunged into my job with energy and enthusiasm.

Then, three weeks later, came the first meeting of the governors over which I would preside. I behaved as if I had been the chairman for years. I welcomed another new member, Lord Dunleath. No one welcomed me; in fact, no one referred to my arrival. Before the meeting I had cast a careful eye over the minutes of the previous meeting held on the day of the announcement of my appointment to see what report it included of the indignation meeting which had taken place. Alas, the minutes were silent on this subject.

Early on I sensed that the members of the board most likely to oppose me would be Robert Lusty, Dame Anne Godwin and Lady Baird, though in this I was not wholly right. After an uneasy phase, Lady Baird, as I believe she would agree, accepted my chairmanship without demur if not with enthusiasm. The Welsh National governor, Professor Glanmor Williams, often opposed me although he did it with great charm and courtesy.

It soon became clear that governors’ meetings were friendly, Christian-name affairs. It also became obvious that they decided very little and that a common form of so-called decision was what the governors agreed with the director-general. In my first two or three months in the chair I gained some impressions of people, not all of which were justified on closer acquaintance. The hostility I found was mainly at governor level and it was not unanimous at that level. John Fulton, who had expressed his loyalty to me, was unfailing in his friendly support; we did not always agree but his attitude to me was loyal, generous and understanding. Peter Trower also made it plain to me at the outset that he was not unfriendly: unfortunately he died within a few months.

 

ITN reports on the ITV contract changes in 1967; Lord Hill is interviewed from about 7m 50s into this clip.

 

Of Greene my first impression was that he was aloof, cautious, telling me very little. But throughout our period together our relations were uniformly civilized and adult. He came to see me weekly and we discussed things in an easy, friendly way.

Oliver Whitley, who had succeeded Harman Grisewood as Greene’s chief assistant, was the perfect gentleman. Kenneth Lamb, the secretary, was charming, if long-winded, and Kenneth Adam, the director of television, greeted me on my visit to Television Centre with great bonhomie, as if we were old friends. He had lived in Harpenden as we did during the war and I had sometimes met him on the station platform. ‘I will call you Charles,’ he said, ‘when no one else is present.’

Huw Wheldon, frank, friendly, argumentative, remarkably fluent, with the ideas tumbling out in an eloquent torrent, I liked from the outset and I usually forgave him for taking so long to reach his conclusion. He always came to the point in the end. David Attenborough, youthful, charming and astonishingly talented, told me that the reaction to the news of my appointment had been just as if Rommel had been appointed to command the Eighth Army. When I asked him whether he meant that the staff doubted whether I was a good general, he replied ‘No. They know that you are: but they need convincing that you are fighting for the same things as the previous one.’ Frank Gillard was the same Frank Gillard I had known years ago, open, straightforward and reliable. I suspected that they all hoped to tame me but did not yet know where my weaknesses and wickedness lay.

October was a busy month inside and outside the office. I had resolved that if I were to do the job properly as a trustee for the public I should do what I had done at the ITA and read and reply to those incoming letters which were addressed personally to me. The number varied according to the liveliness of the controversy of the time, between fifteen and thirty a day, not all, of course, on different subjects. To a few of them I dictated the answers; in replying to the remainder I sought drafts from the highly efficient secretariat, scrutinizing and if necessary modifying the drafts. It seemed to me that one of the best ways of performing the trustee function which fell on governors, and of learning how the machine worked, and how its people ‘ticked’, was to answer my own letters. Indeed, this practice gave me a card of entry to the programme-making machine and over the years it was to be the largest single element in my daily work.

For the rest there were engagements of one kind or another. I made a speech at the Radio and TV Retailers’ dinner, an occasion which I was told in the BBC was not quite up to chairman’s level. I went all the same. I also made my first speech on television problems to the Westminster Chamber of Commerce.

Then, on 18 October, there was the first meeting of the General Advisory Council at Television Centre. It was a set piece, with the chairman and director-general sitting beside the chairman of the council and other governors sitting at a side table. The council was a high-powered body consisting mostly of well-known figures and, as one would expect, there was highly intelligent talk on general broadcasting topics. The director-general answered the questions and replied to points of criticism, yielding nothing in the process. My first impression of the General Advisory Council was of a decorative and distinguished body which was allowed little influence.

I lunched with the then Government Chief Whip, John Silkin, on 23 October. We discussed ways and means of handling problems between Westminster and the BBC. He spoke very well of Oliver Whitley who dealt with these exchanges. When I told him that I hoped that party political broadcasts could be abolished, he did not object. In early November I also lunched with Willie Whitelaw, Opposition Chief Whip, who spoke well of his relations with the BBC and particularly Oliver Whitley. He, too, was not opposed to the abolition of party political broadcasts.

On 26 October came my first press conference on the subject of the BBC’s accounts. The press was naturally lively and inquisitive but I kept the answers to finance, though one man asked a leading question about my appointment. I told him that part of the trouble with the press was that they believed what they wrote.

Then on 9 November I received a deputation consisting of Mrs Whitehouse and two others. Apparently my predecessor, Lord Normanbrook, had resisted a suggestion that the Viewers and Listeners’ Association should have a special position in an advisory capacity to the BBC on the grounds that it was an undemocratic body. She said that changes had now been made and it was now a democratic body. She took it from Lord Normanbrook’s letter that it would now be accorded special advisory status. I rejected the argument, as I did the interpretation which she put on my predecessor’s letter, making it plain that no organization would have a special position in relation to the BBC, though her organization was entitled to have its views considered as well as any others. At the BBC, as at the ITA, I treated Mrs Whitehouse and her colleagues with courtesy and their representations with care, recognizing that the central theme of her campaign could not be contemptuously dismissed, even though I was rarely able to agree with her.

It was not long after my arrival that I raised the matter of my office. The office traditionally used by the chairman was on the third floor separated from the director-general’s office by the room occupied by his secretaries. My secretary was a flight of stairs away on the fourth floor on the grounds that there was no room for her on the third floor. My office, I thought, resembled an oak-lined coffin, airless and sunless, and after an hour or so the atmosphere became heavy and stuffy. I asked for another and more cheerful office, preferably one with an adjacent room for my secretary. I did not ask for an office on another floor, for I did not mind where it was, provided it was light and airy, with my secretary’s room close at hand. Nothing happened for some time, as is the way in big organizations, and I asked that the search for a new office should be intensified. Once it was clear that I was serious, the Central Services Department got cracking and eventually I was offered two small offices, adjacent to my secretary’s office on the fourth floor, which could be knocked into one. This plan had the further advantage that there could be provided close at hand a bathroom and a bedroom for changing and for sleeping on those nights when BBC work kept me late in London. I approved the plan and the work was quickly done.

Those who have visited me at Broadcasting House know the modest but adequate office that resulted, but this did not prevent the press describing it as a penthouse on the top floor. I read, too, that I had deliberately moved to another floor to set up a chairman’s establishment in competition with that of the director-general. This was not my last experience of a pastime indulged in by some BBC staff of feeding the press with malicious tit-bits. The fact is that I would have stayed on the third floor if someone had been willing to move to give me house-room.

All this seems very petty, I know. But petty it was. It is not easy for me to analyse the initial hostility with which I was received at Portland Place. Obviously the appointment of a new chairman of governors was a matter of some importance, for the advent of a new head of any organization is likely to disturb expectations, to awaken ambitions and to arouse fears. Maybe it happened at a particularly vulnerable time for the BBC. Possibly there was a personal element, although I was unknown personally to most of the governors. I was from a professional stable – no disadvantage I would have thought. I had been a minister, and it might have been feared that I would be on the side of politicians, whatever their colour, and encourage inroads into the independence of the BBC. As a former Tory minister, maybe I was suspect to the Left. The government of which I had been a member had created the rival service from which I had come. My head and heart might still be with Independent Television. Worse still, I might regard advertising as the right basis for both broadcasting services. My earlier career might have suggested that I would be unsympathetic with the professional’s distaste for management. And it could have been that the object of my appointment was the correction of the so-called anarchy of the BBC, that I was an instrument to put the BBC in its place.

Whether these fears – or others – existed I do not know. Did I yield to lobbies, political, libertarian or others? Did I turn over the BBC professional to the mercies of the layman? Did I argue for advertising on the BBC? The answers are to be found in the record. But whether such fears and apprehensions were justified or not, what was not justified or sensible or defensible was the pettiness, the childishness, of some people at the top of the BBC before and after my arrival.

 

You Say

1 response to this article

Ronnie MacLennan Baird 28 May 2022 at 6:31 pm

“Punctually at 2.30 pm I was called in to find the Prime Minister in a relaxed mood and smoking a big cigar.”

A reminder that Harold Wilson managed his image by smoking a pipe in public and cigars only in private.

Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Friday 7 October 2022