With a lifetime spent working for the BBC and an impeccable track record in current affairs, Alasdair Milne was the first producer to be appointed as the Corporation’s director general in 1981. Although regarded as a perfect successor to the outgoing Ian Trethowan, Milne was soon to discover he had inherited something of a poisoned chalice. Compounded by controversies of his own, it was a predicament that eventually led to his resignation in 1987, in order to avoid becoming the first BBC director general to be sacked.
Born in India, he spent his youth with his grandparents in Edinburgh and school days at Winchester
College. After national service, he read modern languages at New College, Oxford. He joined the
BBC in 1954 as a trainee and found himself taken under the wing of the pioneering current affairs and politics producer Grace Wyndham Goldie, quickly becoming a ‘Goldie Boy’ alongside the likes of future high-flyers Huw Wheldon, David Frost, Richard Dimbleby and Robin Day.
After a year in radio, he moved to the Lime Grove television studios to work with Antony Jay and Donald Baverstock, with whom he helped devise the groundbreaking early evening magazine show Tonight in 1957. Later, as Tonight’s editor, he set up a stand-alone production company to create a portfolio of innovative programmes that included the 26-part documentary The Great War and Whicker Down Under. Appointed assistant head of current affairs in 1962, he was a key figure in getting the establishment-knocking, headline-grabbing satirical revue That Was The Week That Was on to air.
With Jay and Baverstock, he left the BBC in 1965 and launched JBM, an independent consultancy-cum-production company that managed Rediffusion’s This Week for a period and made an unsuccessful bid for the Scottish TV franchise. Lured back to the BBC by Wheldon notionally to manage current affairs, he was instead appointed controller of the Corporation’s activities in Scotland, staying in the post for five years until returning to London as director (and subsequently managing director) of programmes in 1973.
Under his tenure, the BBC produced adaptations of the complete Shakespeare canon, the landmark dramas Pennies from Heaven, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and I, Claudius. Also, hit comedies that included Yes Minister, a range of acclaimed documentaries and the Live Aid concerts in 1985. He was also instrumental in launching BBC1 into breakfast television in 1983.
His term as director general began with a near-perfect storm of controversies surrounding the BBC’s coverage of the Falklands War (which occasioned a charge of treason against the Corporation by Conservative MPs), continuing civil unrest in Northern Ireland, a contentious Nationwide profile of Margaret Thatcher on the eve of the 1983 election, the coverage of the miners’ strike in 1984-85, a damaging libel action against the current affairs flagship Panorama concerning its reporting of the bombing of Libya by the US in 1986, and the revelation of the government security agency MI5’s vetting of BBC employees.
Other controversies included an aborted attempt to position the BBC as a satellite broadcaster. When the Corporation chose to broadcast the imported American soap The Thorn Birds at a time when ITV was basking in the reflected glory of Jewel in the Crown, Milne’s managerial judgement in appointing Bill Cotton as managing director of television and Michael Grade as director of programmes came under close scrutiny.
Even fiercer attention was focused on him when he advocated an increase of more than 40% in the licence fee from £46 to £65 and, most damagingly at the time, the making of a politically incendiary Real Lives programme featuring an interview with leading Irish republican Martin McGuinness. While Milne was holidaying abroad, the then home secretary Leon Brittan insisted on seeing the programme and promptly banned its broadcast. The decision provoked an internal firestorm at the Corporation between senior management and the board of governors, and set the clock ticking on Milne’s eventual departure.
His opposition to several key proposals by the Peacock Committee – established by the Thatcher government in support of its assertion that the BBC should take advertising to complement and eventually replace licence fee income – including the introduction, against his wishes, of an independent programme-making quota, hastened what was to be an ignominious end.
Hostility against him was brought to fever pitch by the broadcast of a Panorama profile of Maggie’s Militant Tendency, which resulted in libel writs by Conservative MPs Neil Hamilton and Gerald Howarth. When the complaints were settled out of court, with the BBC conceding substantial costs, a parliamentary motion signed by 100 Tories called for his immediate resignation.
In early 1987, he was presented by the newly installed BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey with the option of resigning ‘for personal reasons’ or be sacked, after losing the confidence of the board of governors. He decided to jump and created an unhappy precedent in doing so.
In 1988, he published an autobiography entitled DG – The Memoirs of a British Broadcaster.
Born on October 8, 1930, Alasdair Milne died, aged 82, after a number of strokes, on January 8. He is survived by his two sons and a daughter.