Channel 4 alum surprise choice as chair

This article was updated April 4, 2004 at 12:05 p.m.

LONDON — U.K. media exec Michael Grade, once dubbed Britain’s “pornographer in chief” when he ran Channel 4, is the new chairman of the BBC.

His appointment, a surprise even though he was on the shortlist for the post, has already sent a wave of excitement through the senior ranks of the pubcaster, deeply wounded since the Hutton report criticized its journalism and management style.

Famous for his flamboyant and somewhat maverick style, Grade will now set about finding a director-general to replace Greg Dyke, who resigned following the publication of Hutton’s findings.

It was no secret that the charismatic Grade, who applied but failed to become the BBC director general in the mid-1980s after running flagship channel BBC1, was on the shortlist for the chairmanship, but Media Minister Tessa Jowell was expected to appoint Barbara Scott Young because of John Birt’s opposition to Grade.

Birt has remained at odds with Grade since clashing with him at the BBC in the late ’80s. Birt is now an advisor to Tony Blair, who had to greenlight Jowell’s choice. While many in the British media industry will welcome Grade’s appointment, there will be fears in the commercial sector that his deeply competitive, ratings-chasing style could see the BBC emerge even stronger in the years ahead.

Although the chairman’s job is part-time it is hard to believe that Grade will not play a very hands-on role.

He is a stout defender of broadcasters’ political independence from government and in December expressed admiration for the way the BBC’s governors defended Andrew Gilligan’s controversial reporting of the government’s justification for the Iraq war.

Grade’s critics maintain that he “dumbed down” C4 and that his credentials as a businessman were dented by heavy losses at First Leisure, the company he ran after quitting C4.

Grade’s stewardship of the BBC will not be dull. Opponents concede that the cigar-chomping, red-sock wearing nephew of Lew Grade is a brilliant front man whose own self-confidence should be of enormous benefit to a BBC still reeling from Hutton’s damning verdict and the resignations of Dyke and Davies.

The race for the director general’s job is now wide open. Favored candidates include Mark Thompson, CEO of C4 and a former BBC director of TV; Michael Jackson, who is expected to leave Universal Television later this spring; Jana Bennett, the BBC’s director of television; and John Willis, BBC TV’s director of factual and learning, who was Grade’s program topper at C4.

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