A shuffle at the top of the ITA and the BBC
Whatever surprises Lord Hill had been storing up for the programme companies he seemed unaware that his own destiny was under consideration at 10 Downing Street.
Lord Normanton had died in office and the Chairmanship of the BBC had become vacant. In one of those occasional swings of the pendulum when power passes from Chairman to Director-General, or vice versa, Sir Hugh Greene had developed into a Director-General with character and personality strong enough to assume control of the Corporation’s policies and activities. His liberal attitudes towards programmes and programme-makers were less popular outside the BBC. It might be all very well to brush aside protesting do-gooders like the reforming Mary Whitehouse but it could be hazardous to antagonise a Prime Minister.
When the day came to decide on who should occupy the Chairman’s seat on the BBC Board of Governors the final choice rested with one man, the Prime Minister. There are two versions of what happened. One account is that during a Cabinet meeting the Prime Minister passed a scribbled note to his Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, the Rt Hon Herbert Bowden, and asked him whether he had any preference for being appointed Chairman of the BBC or of Independent Television. ‘Bert’ Bowden was nearing the summit of an impressive career but, for domestic reasons, the travels essential to his Commonwealth duties had become irksome and he had notified the Prime Minister that he would welcome a transfer to another post in Britain.
When he read the message it did not take him long to make up his mind. He knew Sir Robert Fraser and liked him; Sir Hugh Greene was an unknown quantity and from hearsay the prospect was not attractive. Although the Minister had been an opponent of Independent Television in the beginning, his respect had grown for its accomplishments, and he decided that this was where his future might lie. He accepted the job, and the peerage that went with it. Lord Aylestone became Chairman of the Independent Television Authority.
The more familiar version is that the Prime Minister, dissatisfied with the BBC and its domination by the Director-General, came to the conclusion that the only remedy was to appoint a combative Chairman. Impressed with the performance of Lord Hill at ITV and his domination of its Director-General and members of the Authority, Mr Wilson decided to use the shock tactic of installing as Chairman of the BBC the ‘general’ in command of the opposition.
Perhaps when he contemplated such a switch Mr Wilson had been finally impressed by the firm way in which Lord Hill had dealt with the programme companies and his effective handling of the press at the Sunday afternoon conference to announce the changes. It was only six weeks after the press conference that Lord Hill was telephoned at his home in Harpenden and summoned to Downing Street to meet the Prime Minister on the following afternoon. Mr Wilson was accompanied by the Postmaster-General, then Mr Edward Short. The Prime Minister first complimented Lord Hill on his good work at the ITA and then offered him the Chairmanship of the BBC. Lord Hill’s own reflection on this was:
The Prime Minister had not given me a choice between an extension of my job at the ITA or the acceptance of the BBC Chairmanship. If he had, I suspect that I might well have accepted an extension of the ITA Chairmanship.
The one factor about which there was no doubt was the Prime Minister’s intention to put politicians in control of BBC and ITA.
Lord Hill moved into Broadcasting House and began a stormy regime at the BBC where the news of his appointment had been received with anger and bewilderment. A cold reception awaited him from the Board of Governors.
Lord Aylestone told me that his reception at Brompton Road, too, was chilly. The way he assessed it, everyone was speculating as to why he had been sent there, but before long his friendliness and his candour thawed out the freeze and he became the most popular Chairman with the staff of the Authority.
His first action had been to study the transcripts of all the interviews for the new franchises. His conclusions were that Television West-and-Wales had been treated fairly but he was not entirely happy with the handling of Rediffusion.
Born in Cardiff, where his parents ran a small but unsuccessful bakery, Bert Bowden became Labour member for Leicester South in 1945, gaining a safe seat. His five years at the Authority were extended to seven and a half years and he left with the goodwill of the staff and all the companies. A modest and simple man, his tastes in many ways reflected the programme preferences of the public, and above all he was totally honest and direct in his approach to problems. He was accessible to all and overcame most difficulties by applying ordinary commonsense.
Lord Hill’s legacy of new companies became Lord Aylestone’s baby, with all the pangs of youthfulness. There was also the task of finding a successor for Sir Robert Fraser, who was due to retire. I know that Lord Aylestone’s first preference for a new Director-General would have been John Freeman and an approach was made. At the time John Freeman was not attracted but ultimately, when the chaotic situation at London Weekend was heading for disaster, the company was salvaged by the appointment of John Freeman in the combined role of Chairman and Chief Executive, with Aidan Crawley becoming president.
Thames Television had succeeded in mastering most of the problems of a merger and was creating no difficulties for the new Authority Chairman. After a successful launching at the Mansion House Thames had reached the end of its first half year and in spite of the industry’s troubled re-start the Company looked well set for a good run.
Then came rumblings of another change. EMI had made a bid to take over ABC, half owners of Thames Television.