Alasdair Milne

8 Oct 1930
9 Jan 2013
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Alasdair David Gordon Milne (8 October 1930 – 9 January 2013) was Director-General of the British Broadcasting Corporation between July 1982 and 1987. Earlier in his career Milne was a BBC producer involved in founding Tonight in 1957. Later, after a period outside the BBC, he became Controller of BBC Scotland, and BBC Television’s Director of Programmes. In January 1987, Milne was forced to resign from his post as DG by the BBC Governors following several difficult years for the Corporation and sustained pressure from the Thatcher government.

Born in India to Scottish parents,Milne was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford.

Before going to university Milne did his National Service as an officer in the Gordon Highlanders. He joined the BBC in September 1954 as a graduate trainee after his wife spotted a BBC advertisement. He was taken under the wing of Grace Wyndham Goldie who recruited, trained, guided and encouraged many well-known BBC broadcasters and current affairs executives. Milne was one of the so-called “Goldie Boys”, a group of producers and presenters, which included Huw Wheldon, Robin Day, David Frost, Cliff Michelmore, Ian Trethowan and Richard Dimbleby.

Milne was the first television producer to become Director-General.His background was in current affairs and he was a founder producer of Tonight, and became the programme’s Editor in 1961. He also worked on programmes such as That Was The Week That Was, one of the most controversial programmes of the 1960s, and The Great War. He was instrumental in bringing the entire Shakespeare canon to television, as well as one of the BBC’s most acute comedies, Yes, Minister.

Landmark broadcasting events during his time as Director-General included Live Aid, the massive music event precipitated by a BBC news report on famine in Africa. The BBC’s new Breakfast Time programme went on air on 17 January 1983, presented by Frank Bough and former ITN newscaster Selina Scott. Milne was full of praise for the show, saying: “It was a terrific start. The first Tonight programme was not as good as this.”

As Director-General, Milne was involved with a series of controversies with the British government. Contentious programme making included the impartial reporting of the Falklands War on Newsnight, the Nationwide general election special with Margaret Thatcher in 1983, the coverage of the UK miners’ strike (1984–1985), the Real Lives fracas, the Panorama libel action and its reporting of the U.S. bombing of Libya and the controversy surrounding the programme Secret Society which took place in light of MI5’s vetting of BBC employees.

On top of this, Milne had to defend the existence of the BBC to the Peacock Committee, which was considering the future of the BBC. Milne defended the television licence thus:

“The licence fee itself has some flaws of which we have been aware for many years, but whose virtues greatly outstrip its flaws. The licence fee is a form of hypothecated tax and, yes, it is regressive and burdens old age pensioners (who amount to one-third of all licence fee holders and who are the heaviest users of the available service), it is compulsory and, paid as a single annual payment, amounts to a good deal of money. On the other hand, it does amount to the best bargain in Britain, a slogan which is truer than any single advertising claim I can think of: it is by far the cheapest form of paying for a high standard of broadcasting.”

The licence fee survived the negotiations and the BBC made an expensive and failed attempt to enter satellite broadcasting.

In September 1986, Marmaduke Hussey was appointed Chairman of the BBC Governors. Perceived as being Margaret Thatcher’s “hatchet man”, he was accused of having been appointed because of her perception that the Corporation was biased towards the left In an unprecedented step, Hussey convinced the Board of Governors that a change of direction was needed, and they forced Milne’s resignation.

Milne wrote:

“Patricia Hodgson, the Secretary, asked me if I would go and see the Chairman. I thought it odd that she addressed me by my Christian name; everybody else did, but for some reason she had never done so before. When I walked into Hussey’s office, Barnett and he were both there. I remember the blinds were drawn against the sun which was brilliant that morning. Hussey’s lip trembled as he said: ‘I am afraid this is going to be a very unpleasant interview. We want you to leave immediately. It’s a unanimous decision of the Board.”

Alasdair Milne, who later described the governors as a “bunch of amateurs”,resigned in January 1987

Milne was strongly critical of former BBC Director-General John Birt whom he calls “blue skies Birt”. Birt’s thesis on television’s so-called ‘Bias Against Understanding’ Milne described as “balls, actually”, and said “the most graceless man I have ever known. Ghastly man”.

In October 2004, stories were published implying that he had suggested that alleged dumbing down of the BBC was partly the consequence of the corporation’s growing number of female executives: “Too many dumb, dumb, dumb cookery and gardening shows . . . I have nothing against women. I’ve worked with them all my life. It just 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.”Milne later clarified his position: “What I actually said was that the three people who had run the television service for the past four or five years had not, it seemed to me, done a marvellous job. I would have said the same if they had been mice or men. They happened to be women and then I was stitched up by The Times.”

He married Sheila Graucob in 1954; she died in 1992.The couple had two sons, Ruairidh and Seumas, a journalist with The Guardian and a daughter, Kirsty(died July 2013) who wrote for news publications in England and Scotland.

Alasdair Milne died on 8 January 2013 at age 82 after suffering from a series of strokes.

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