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9 February 2004updated 24 Sep 2015 12:01pm

Let women save the BBC

Behind the scenes, female executives warned that machismo would get the corporation in trouble. With

By David Cox

Greg Dyke’s troops may no longer be blocking the traffic in Portland Place, but peace has not returned to the BBC. On the contrary, as the world’s gaze turns away, conflict is deepening. Loyalties are being questioned, alliances are being forged and cards are being marked.

Utterly devoted to the king across the water are the Dyke loyalists. They pledge total support for their lost leader’s vendetta against Tony Blair. Elated by apparent public support and the WMD inquiry, they believe they can even yet bring down the Blair regime. What, they ask, does one reporter’s mistake mat- ter, when BBC journalism revealed that Britain went to war on a false prospectus?

Ranged against the Dykeists are those who think that Hutton must be forgotten. Otherwise, they fear, the BBC will remain mired in the worst disaster ever to befall it. They point out that the corporation did, after all, screw up. If No 10 was unfairly let off the hook, too bad. What matters now is putting the BBC back together again, not winning a battle that should never have been allowed to start. And that means seeking calm and closure.

Some in this second camp are remnants of the pre-Dyke era, brought in during the late 1980s to support John Birt, then deputy director general, in his ruthless purge of sloppiness and bias. Dyke’s “cut the crap” BBC had little use for their philosophy. In its place came a culture of competitiveness. The BBC would be out to win, in whatever game it found itself. Life was going to be fun again. Most of the staff loved the sound of it, and Dyke became the most popular DG ever.

Some of the Birtists fled. Others, by now derided as uptight sissies, cowered in corners, appalled to see judiciousness and restraint give way to macho pugnacity. An alternative theory of news emerged. Rather than fussing about sobriety and impartiality, news should make waves and rock boats. Newsmen boasted that if the Tories were incapable of opposing the government, then the BBC would do their job for them. Politicians were all liars; the journalist’s job was to expose and humiliate them. In Alastair Campbell they encountered a pugilist at least as testosterone-driven as their own boss. Once he threw down the gauntlet, only one outcome was possible – a fight to the death.

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Now, the Birtists believe their day has come again. But they have been joined by another, much more important group who share their distaste for the tyranny of virility. One feature of the Birt era was a stern commitment to gender correctness. This has borne fruit in the emergence of a female boss class. Most of the Beeb’s top brass are now women – the director of television, the director of radio, the controllers of BBC1, BBC2 and Radio 4, the director of communications, the director of strategy and the director of policy, to name but a few. Almost the only area free from petticoat power is the locker-room news division.

In spite of this lacuna, the BBC gynocracy can still muster impressive journalistic credentials. Today‘s muscle-men took on the government and lost, but the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, was forced to make a humiliating climbdown in October when he tangled with The Secret Policeman. This unimpeachably painstaking, humane and witty expose of racism in the force was made not by the newsroom tough guys, but by Glenwyn Benson’s factual department. As a hard news fiefdom, Today by-passes Jenny Abramsky, the director of radio. But programmes she commissions herself, such as Analysis and File on Four, manage to provide penetrating analysis year after year without precipitating unnecessary calamities.

At the coalface, too, the girls are showing the boys how to do it. Andrew Gilligan failed to come up with convincing notes of his chat with David Kelly. Newsnight‘s Susan Watts provided a tape recording of hers. Her alpha-male colleague Jeremy Paxman may stand accused of self-regarding bluster, but Watts and Newsnight colleagues such as Martha Kearney, Stephanie Flanders and Madeleine Holt consistently impress with incisive but unassuming reportage.

More than one of the BBC’s female power-brokers (others sometimes call them “the wise witches”; they sometimes call themselves the “the old bats”) urged Dyke to call off his war with Campbell while there was still room for a dignified exit. Dyke’s responses were characteristically (if not altogether chivalrously) pithy. The director of communications, Sally Osman, showed how apologies should be handled when she gracefully owned up to her role in the BBC governors’ blundering statement of July before anyone asked her to do so.

Not surprisingly, some of the Beeb sisterhood now feel vindicated, and they are not impressed by the noisy army of newsboys. They point out that Hutton’s verdict is far from the only ill-effect of the former DG’s competitive urge. At the time, the ratings war, in which BBC1 overtook ITV, seemed ample cause for trebles all round. Yet the dumbing down of the schedule that it entailed has jeopardised the renewal of the BBC’s charter. Imperialist commercial expansionism and brutal exploitation of suppliers have further damaged the corporation’s standing.

The BBC has never had a woman director general. Now, it seems, the case for appointing one may amount to more than window-dressing. Studies have shown that female bosses prefer collaboration to competitiveness, and consensus-building to confrontation. These may be the qualities which the corpora- tion now requires. Experience dating back to the days of Grace Wyndham Goldie, the legendary current affairs chief of the 1950s, suggests that a “feminised” ambience may be far from incompatible with journalistic effectiveness.

The governors who so surprised Dyke by sending him packing are known to be wondering whether the BBC should “stick to reporting the news, instead of trying to make it”. Five of them are themselves women. Within a few months, they will have to appoint Dyke’s successor. For once, there are plenty of female candidates around. The BBC itself can field, besides Benson and Abramsky, its skilful and charming director of television, Jana Bennett. Notable among the contenders from outside is Eileen Gallagher, an independent producer who ran rings around the corporation’s finest in a successful struggle to get a fairer deal for her fellow programme suppliers.

Perhaps what the Beeb’s rowdy schoolboys need is a firm and focused headmistress. As one female insider put it: “A woman would have seen Alastair Campbell’s campaign as a toddler’s tantrum, not as a declaration of war.” Cool it, laddies. Playtime’s over. Time to go back inside and get on with your work. And try to behave a bit more like the girls.

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