Review: Chance Governs All By Marmaduke Hussey Essay, Research Paper
Duking it out Chance Governs All Marmaduke Hussey 326pp, Macmillan In September 1986, the doomed director-general of the BBC, Alastair Milne, was on a platform at the National Film Theatre when he was handed a note. It told him that a new chairman of the BBC had been appointed. Milne rose to leave as fast as his brown suede shoes would allow, with journalists, including me, in hot pursuit. “I’ve never heard of him,” he said of Marmaduke Hussey, a previous managing director of Times Newspapers, who had presided over a spectacularly unsuccessful year-long shutdown of the paper. So began the turbulent decade when the unorthodox, quasi-establishment Hussey, with Lord Joel Barnett as deputy, stamped himself on a resistant BBC. By January 1987 Hussey had sacked Milne, and been forced to accept his deputy, Michael Checkland, but had also brought in John Birt to tame news and current affairs. In 1991, he decided that his second director-general, Checkland, would be replaced by Birt. Hussey charts how trust broke down. Checkland was too slow in cutting staff numbers, created a furore over splitting Radio 4’s FM and long-wave services, bounced through Eldorado – and – final insult – had the nerve to propose moving governors out of Broadcasting House (Hussey refused to budge). All this paved the way for the Birtist revolution, and Hussey’s eventual comeuppance. He was unable to control Birt. So the BBC was brought to the brink of creative breakdown by 1996. This book is annoying many at the BBC and Times Newspapers. Greg Dyke has emailed his staff deploring the image it paints of a sloppy, self-indulgent BBC, awash with freeloaders ordering up boxes of cigars for executive dinners and limitless taxis. The book also relives the traumas of libel actions and sloppy standards – and, of course, the corporate backstabbing. These days, the top echelon of the BBC rush to tell you how much they love each other. But the real reason it annoys is that it is accessible, and stuffed with Dukey-style jokes. It also reveals how much he went behind the backs of BBC managers. The BBC has a 10-year charter and agreement because he advised the government that 15 years would be too long. This is also the only modern(ish) account of what it is like to be the chairman of the BBC, and the first considered history of how the institution survived Margaret Thatcher and massive tension over Northern Ireland. It shows just how forceful a chairman can be. The voice is unmistakably Dukey’s, with all his weaknesses, foibles, and strengths. Much of the tone is upper-middle-class Pooter. Along the way he hands on tips about how to lead a successful life: always save something every month. Dukey’s is also a world of personal connections, where things are fixed over lunches in London clubs, or hotel teas. We read about Boxing Day lunches with Mrs Thatcher and annual unrecorded lunches with successive home secretaries. In the background hovers Sue (Lady Susan Hussey, lady in waiting to the Queen). Where the book is genuinely moving is in Hussey’s account of his earlier life, as the ashamed war hero, injured as soon as he showed up in Anzio, which led to an extraordinary postwar struggle for life. There is no self-pity. He briskly notes that he burned all his schoolboy sports photos. But this is a story of flawed success. The BBC was saved from itself. To adopt Dukey’s language, he played a blinder. The BBC prospered despite Thatcher. It was modernised, sort of, and has entered the digital age far ahead of ITV. It has held on to the licence fee and its commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, extended the sway of the World Service, and seen BBC Radio triumph over commercial attack. A lot has gone right for a long time since 1986, and Duke Hussey, for all his faults, must be given some generous portion of the credit.