Led pubcaster during conflict with Thatcher government
Former BBC boss Alasdair Milne, who was ousted at the behest of Margaret Thatcher’s government, died Tuesday following a series of strokes. He was 82.
From the moment Milne was appointed as the pubcaster’s director general in 1981, he had to battle to defend its editorial independence. At the time, the U.K. was engaged in a war with Argentina, and government supporters felt the BBC should support the “home” team rather than report on the conflict from a neutral perspective.
Further storms followed over Milne’s five-year term, such as those centering on its even-handed coverage of the conflict in Northern Ireland and a bitter dispute between the government and the miners’ union.
Milne was also attacked for acquiring American series rather than commissioning home-grown shows. Miniseries “The Thorn Birds,” for example, was described by right-wing paper the Daily Telegraph as “one of the most paltry, tawdry imported soap operas that any television channel has ever had the contempt to inflict on the viewing public.”
This unfortunately coincided with a BBC campaign to persuade the government to raise the license fee by 41% to £65 ($104) a year; Thatcher’s response was that it should take advertising instead. Although attempts to make the BBC accept advertising failed, the government did force it to take up to 40% of its programs from independent producers, which ministers believed would cut costs.
Milne’s fate took a further dive when it came to light that public affairs show “Real Lives” was going to include an interview with IRA leader Martin McGuinness at a time when Thatcher had said terrorists should be starved of the “oxygen of publicity.” While Milne was out of the country, the BBC governors banned the program, under pressure from the government, provoking a row with BBC journalists, who went on strike. The show finally aired in October 1985, but relations with the governors had been damaged. BBC chairman Stuart Young accused Milne and his execs of “disloyalty, lying and cowardice,” while Milne later said the governors were a “bunch of amateurs.”
Further disputes centered on investigative program “Rough Justice,” which was proved to have used unacceptable methods in securing evidence, and an edition of “Panorama” entitled “Maggie’s Militant Tendency,” which made a series of allegations about Conservative Party politicians.
This prompted litigation, which dragged on for two years, before the BBC was forced to pay substantial damages to two of those named in the program. A motion was then signed by 100 Conservative Members of Parliament calling for Milne’s resignation, and “the restoration of proper standards at the BBC.”
In 1987, new BBC chairman Marmaduke Hussey forced Milne to resign.
Milne had joined the BBC as a trainee in 1954. He helped launch BBC television’s nightly public affairs flagship “Tonight” in 1957 and later became its editor.
In 1962, he was promoted to assistant head of public affairs programming and launched satirical show “That Was The Week That Was.” He then set up an independent consultant company, JBM, before returning to the BBC and being appointed controller of BBC Scotland. He later became BBC Television’s director of programs, then managing director.
During Milne’s tenure, the BBC’s drama output was particularly strong, including series “I, Claudius,” “Pennies From Heaven” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.”
He is survived by his three children, two sons and a daughter.