published 09/01/2013 at 19:13 GMT by Philip Purser
BBC director general who resigned after a series of rows during the Thatcher era
When Alasdair Milne, who has died aged 82, was appointed director general of the BBC in 1981, he must have seemed the ideal choice. He had known no career other than broadcasting and no employer other than the BBC, though he had once left the corporation briefly to set up an independent production company. Furthermore, he had come up from current affairs television, by then the recognised launchpad to the top.
Yet his term as director general ended prematurely, in January 1987, when he resigned to avoid the ignominy of being sacked. The ostensible cause was a succession of public gaffes by the BBC in 1985-86, plus a costly out-of-court libel settlement over a 1984 edition of Panorama, all of which Tory ministers, the Times, the Daily Mail and others were able to exploit. Politics was at the root of all the complaints, even those aroused by The Monocled Mutineer, a drama serial set in the first world war and advertised as a true story, although most of the exploits of its deserter "hero" who flouted authority were in fact conjectural.
There had also been a row when two plays about the Falklands war were commissioned, but only the anti-war one was produced. But the loudest uproar of all had come in 1985 over a pair of interviews, with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin and Gregory Campbell of the Democratic Unionists, for a documentary on Northern Ireland in the Real Lives series.
Margaret Thatcher had earlier that year stated that broadcasters should deny terrorists "the oxygen of publicity". Leaked details of the programme prompted a letter from the then home secretary, Leon Brittan, demanding that it be pulled from the schedules. With Milne absent abroad, the BBC board of governors viewed the programme and stopped it from going out. BBC journalists went on strike in protest and Milne was able to reinstate the item later in the year, if at the cost of renewed hostility from governors and government alike.
The final clash was set off by The Secret Society, a BBC Scotland series which was not transmitted until after Milne's departure. It was supposed to reveal how on the one hand individual privacy was being eroded, while on the other hand government departments were exercising ever greater secrecy. While the series was still in preparation, Special Branch raided the BBC's Glasgow studios and carried off tins of film. These were for an episode intended to blow the whistle on a satellite warning system, Zircon, being quietly developed by the Ministry of Defence. Milne had already viewed rough-cuts of the series and scrubbed this episode. It made no difference. His enemies had all they needed.
It was bad luck rather than bad judgment. Milne had taken over just when the paranoiac suspicion of the BBC first displayed by Harold Wilson in the 1960s was being reinvigorated by Thatcher. One of the ploys of both prime ministers was to appoint a powerful chairman of the governors to "curb" the director general, in Milne's case Marmaduke Hussey. As for the governors, they happened to be suffering a periodic urge to cease being a bunch of dim nobodies and turn themselves into dim busybodies. It was their decision, Hussey told Milne, that he had to go.
That a Scottish production should have precipitated Milne's fall was an extra irony. He came from an east of Scotland family, and the happiest years of his BBC career were to be the five he spent as controller of BBC Scotland. His parents lived in India, where his father was a surgeon, so the children were largely brought up by grandparents in Edinburgh. The young Alasdair was sent to school at Winchester college, and on to New College, Oxford. He graduated, and also married, in the summer of 1954, with no idea of how he wanted to earn a living. It was his wife, Sheila, who spotted a BBC advertisement for general trainees.
These traineeships were highly sought-after, and hundreds of graduates applied each year. Milne and Patrick Dromgoole, who would wind up as managing director of HTV, were the lucky ones in 1954. They started off in radio, but within a year Milne was at the Lime Grove television studios, working for the two high flyers, Donald Baverstock and Antony Jay, with whom he would long be associated.
They devised the early evening show Tonight, hived themselves off from the rest of the Talks Department as a private empire called Tonight Productions, and launched the legendary Saturday night satire of the early 1960s, That Was the Week That Was. But its over-ambitious successor Not So Much a Programme, More a Way of Life, was a flop. By 1965 Jay had quit, while Baverstock's dizzy progress up the ranks was grinding to a halt.
He and Milne decided to leave the BBC and join Jay in setting up an independent outfit, Jay, Baverstock & Milne. Alas, it was 20 years before the advent of Channel 4 and Thatcher's politics of deconstruction would make independents an accepted part of the broadcasting system. The main work they had was making information films for ICT computers. But if they could not sell programmes to the TV companies, they could sell them their services. Milne went to Rediffusion to run its respected current affairs show This Week.
This was probably an asset when in 1967 he rejoined a BBC that was at last beginning to accept the idea that its staff need not necessarily be lifers, and that experience of the big world outside might be useful. Milne dodged an invitation to return to current affairs shows, though, and angled to take over BBC Scotland – his first deed was to have the "Scotland" added to the brass plate outside Broadcasting House in Glasgow.
The Milne family settled into a house on the outskirts of the city. Nationalism was in the air after a famous SNP byelection victory at Hamilton. Milne was able to increase Scotland's presence on the TV network, and left regretfully when in 1973 he was lured back to London as director of programmes, television, but he was still only 43, and ambitious.
The BBC's two channels each had its own chief to run day-to-day programming. Milne's overall responsibility tended to be noticed only when trouble flared, in the 1970s mainly over questions of taste and censorship. He handled these better than the most notorious instance suggests, his decision in 1976 to withdraw Dennis Potter's play Brimstone and Treacle from the schedules. He also pushed through the BBC's introduction of breakfast television ahead of the opposition.
And so to the director generalship. How this would have been viewed had he been allowed to run his full term, probably another four years, is hard to say. He wasted time and money on a premature attempt to take the BBC into satellite broadcasting. Having got rid of his able managing director, television, Aubrey Singer, he gave the job to an ex-light entertainment specialist, Bill Cotton. And why not? But to then bring in another warrior from the ratings front line, Michael Grade, as director of programmes tilted the balance too far. BBC Television suddenly seemed to be more interested in audience figures than excellence, in buying popular shows from the US than making its own programmes.
In fact, the criticism which broke out when the BBC put on an imported serial, The Thorn Birds, in 1984, while ITV basked in the wide acclaim for The Jewel in the Crown, can be seen as the first shot in the political campaign that led to that bitter day in 1987 when Milne was deposed.
In time he recovered and began to take part in the institutional deliberations that lie in wait for retired broadcasters. In 1988 he published DG: the Memoirs of a British Broadcaster. And for his old mentor Baverstock, he took on for a while the administration of a family business Donald and his wife, Gillian, had inherited, overseeing the income from the work of Gillian's mother, Enid Blyton.
Milne told a meeting of the Royal Television Society in 2006 that when no further TV work presented itself: "I decided to go and spend the summer fishing and the winter shooting in beloved Scotland."
Sheila died in 1992. Milne is survived by two sons, Ruairidh and Seumas, and a daughter, Kirsty.
Alasdair David Gordon Milne, television executive, born 8 October 1930; died 8 January 2013
published 09/01/2013 at 19:13 GMT by Philip Purser