Coup came after chairman Marmaduke Hussey brutally reasserted the power of the Corporation’s governors
One of the most extraordinary acts of media theatre involving the late Alasdair Milne took place on a Wednesday in late September, 1986, when news broke that Marmaduke Hussey had been appointed chairman of the BBC.
Milne was on a panel at one of the interminable conferences on broadcasting that were a hallmark of those troubled times, at the British Film Institute, in one of its more intimate spaces. He was handed a note, and was clearly stunned by its contents. He rose to his feet, and said he had to leave at once. The BBC had a new chairman.
He mumbled something about having no idea who he was, and rushed out, his trademark brown suede shoes barely seeming to touch the floor – as the soon-to-launch Independent newspaper’s first media editor I followed in hot pursuit. But Milne was never one to court the press, or seek allies, and in that moment of flight I just knew he was in deep trouble.
A bit later I left to keep a lunch date with the then rising media tycoon, Michael Green, who later became a leading player in the ITV network. Though Green was a sharp Tory businessman he seemed as amazed as me by the choice of Hussey, a former Times Newspapers managing director, who had taken on, but failed to crush, the print unions.
When Hussey published his memoir, Chance Governs All, in 2001 he explained that he didn’t tell anyone, including Rupert Murdoch, about the BBC job until that Wednesday morning. He also described the informal method of selection: he’d been phoned by home secretary Douglas Hurd earlier that month and asked:” Oh, Dukie, it’s Douglas Hurd here, with a very odd question to ask you. Would you like to be chairman of the BBC?”
While I lunched with Green that day, Hussey was at the Berkeley dining with his BBC vice chairman, Lord Joel Barnett, a former Labour secretary of the Treasury, (with whom he formed a crucial, unbreakable alliance) who was every bit as keen to sort out the BBC, starting at the top.
Hussey’s appointment was followed by an uneasy four-month period during which the Conservative party chairman Norman Tebbit, scourge of the BBC, blasted Kate Adie’s coverage of the US bombing of Libya, something the new chairman was bound to defend, while he took stock and settled libel actions.
But the coup eventually came on 28 January 1987, when Hussey, appalled at the “self indulgent” BBC culture he observed, brutally reasserted the power of the governors, and fired Milne. He wrote of Milne: “His judgment was wildly erratic”.
Hussey had to involve Patricia Hodgson, then BBC secretary, who went on to be policy director under John Birt and more recently a BBC trustee, in the governors’ plot. After a 10.30am governors’ meeting, Hussey sent for Milne and gave him the choice between instant resignation or dismissal.
Milne left after 25 minutes. The BBC governors and remaining senior managers then went ahead with the scheduled lunch from hell – with an empty place. How my phone buzzed.
That evening several ITV companies launched their lily-livered attempt at a “pan European” satellite TV service, Super Channel, at a small reception at Limehouse Studios, where Canary Wharf towers today, attended by Margaret Thatcher. I asked her what she thought of Milne’s departure.
She looked triumphant, flushed. “Talk to the chairman of the BBC,” she said with a happy smile.