Grade: Women on top at the BBC

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Interview BBC chairman Michael Grade has defended comments made by a former director-general suggesting BBC women exectives are to blame for a spate of "terrible" programming.

After addressing delegates at the 6th annual interactive television industry conference in Barcelona on Thursday, Mr Grade and Emma Somerville, BBC Head of Interactive Programming said former BBC director general Alasdair Milne’s recent comments served as an illustration that women are eliminating gender barriers.

"What Alasdair’s comments suggest is that we’ve done rather well in promoting women to top jobs inside the BBC," Mr Grade said.

"We have to be exemplars in the business of being equal opportunity employers and I think we are.”
The chairman admitted that despite the corporation’s failure to elect a female director-general of the BBC since its inception, “Whether we do or not is now solely dependent on talent and there’s nothing to stop them."

Alasdair Milne’s comments, first made over lunch with the chairman, drew a furious reaction from BBC executives after reports of the conversation surfaced in the press.

While Mr Grade immediately distanced himself from Milne’s words, it was still enough to cause discomfort as the government considers the renewal of the BBC’s royal charter.

“It seems to me that the television service has largely been run by women for the last four to five years and they don’t seem to have done a great job of work,” Mr Milne had said.

He added: “I have nothing against women — I’ve worked with them all my life. I told [Mr Grade) I thought programmes had become terrible with no innovation. Dumb, dumb, dumb.”

Mr Milne, 74, was forced out of the corporation in 1987 after a series of clashes with the Conservative government.

Responses from Mr Grade and Ms Somerville on Thursday sought to play down the controversy the ex-director-general’s comments have caused.

"All I can say is bless him,’ Mr Grade said in a sentiment echoed by the accompanying iTV director.

"What can you say? I’ve known Alasdair for many years and I think he’s second to nobody in worrying about the institution of the BBC and I think he was very badly treated in his time.

"But, I think his views haven’t quite caught up with the world in that respect," he added.

The new world Mr Grade distances Alasdair Milne from is epitomised by the games, gambling and programme information that appears on interactive red-button systems being demonstrated in the exhibition – organised by Immediate Futures – behind him.

“We’re learning all the time as we develop this technology at the BBC,” he says.

“The extraordinary thing about interactive is that it’s bringing down the barriers between departments,” which, he says, “is simply unheard of”.

Andrew Thompson, the BBC’s Head of New Media and Sports News listens as Mr Grade describes the way sports television allowed the interactive department access to its schedules before they were ready to release as “culturally amazing”.

“It’s pushing convergence on many different levels within the BBC,” Mr Grade says.

Michael Grade wants BBC figures firmed up

Emma Somerville says it’s now commonplace to have the controllers of BBC1, BBC2, BBC3 and BBC4 sitting together at a table with her and her interactive team in order to discuss how they can best work together on output at the very beginning of programme planning.

Mr Grade says he’s been amazed to see how interactive services have caught the imagination of the public, with co-operation between departments a key component in producing winning formulas.

Independent recommendations, he says, can sometimes serve as the lifeblood in pairing up old and new areas of broadcasting to make this happen.

“We’re not obliged to take the independent advice, like the recommendations at the heart of the government’s reforms on board, but sometimes I think we need to,” he says.

“The original BBC constitution was created for the government in a very simple world, but a new complexity has arrived and it means new challenges and increased competition with the private sector.”

“In light of this, government decisions must be balanced by objective independent advice. The governors themselves here will most welcome the recommendations in the Graff report – this is my mandate and my manifesto.”

With this, Mr Grade stresses his passion to return value to the license payer from the BBC’s commercial and semi-commercial ventures, including satellite channels, BBC World and the UKTV network which screens back-to-back reruns of classic BBC programmes flanked by advertisements.

“We have a duty to protect against the inflationary pressure on the licence fee through business creation to supplement our income,” he explains.

Exploiting his broad commercial experience – from Head of Entertainment and Director of Programmes at London Weekend Television in 1973 to President of Embassy Television in the US in 1981 and nine years from 1988 as Chief Executive of Channel 4 Television – to make a return on development at the BBC is now one of his key priorities, he says.

“The return is in public value and in stimulating new markets so others can come in and exploit them – a vital role”.

Finances at the BBC that will enable him to see this pledge out, Mr Grade says, are “absolutely on plan”.

“The balance sheet is in good shape, so that’s not a problem,” he adds, justifying his immediate need to rifle through the corporation’s accounts on his return.

“I was keen as the incoming chairman to get a sense of what’s going on, as I would in any business – particularly at the BBC, where in the end the governors have a responsibility for £2.8bn of public money.

“I was keen to make sure I could trust the BBC’s system of overseeing finances, which is why I called in Ernst and Young to conduct ‘a financial MOT test”.

The chairman says the thing he fears most in his new role is not a journalistic cock-up – “Hopefully that won’t happen!”, but the stewardship of the public’s money.

“I don’t think you can take that responsibility seriously enough, and I worry about it day in day out. So the first thing I wanted to do was make sure we have systems that are fit for the purpose and that is what’s going on at the moment… so we’ll see what the accountant’s report to the governors says.”

It’s a new lease of life for Michael Grade quoted in January’s edition of Saga magazine as saying: “If I were asked to come back [to the BBC] tomorrow, I’d have to say no… What do I want to go back that way for? What could I achieve? Television was very good to me but you get out before you get stale.”

“There’s a magazine for my peer group!” he jokes with his colleagues when reminded of his words; before explaining he had been answering a direct question about whether he wanted to be the corporation’s next director-general.

“I’ll avoid becoming stale by using young people and plenty of them,” he says.

“And I absolutely won’t interfere in whatever they do during my time at the BBC”.