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Alasdair Milne

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Alasdair Milne
Born(1930-10-08)8 October 1930
Died8 January 2013(2013-01-08) (aged 82)
EducationWinchester College
Alma materNew College, Oxford
OccupationTelevision producer and controller
TitleProgramme Editor
Controller BBC Scotland
BBC Director of Programmes
BBC Director-General
ChildrenSeumas Milne, Kirsty Milne and Ruairidh

Alasdair David Gordon Milne (8 October 1930 – 8 January 2013) was a British television producer and executive. He had a long career at the BBC, where he was eventually promoted to Director-General, and was described by The Independent as "one of the most original and talented programme-makers to emerge during television's formative years".[1]

In his early career, Milne was a BBC producer and was involved in founding the current affairs series Tonight in 1957. Later, after a period outside the BBC, he became Controller of BBC Scotland and BBC Television's Director of Programmes.[2] He served as Director-General of the BBC between July 1982 and January 1987, when he was forced to resign from his post by the BBC Governors following several difficult years for the Corporation, which included sustained pressure from the Thatcher government about editorial decisions which had proved controversial.[2]


Born in India to Scottish parents,[3] Milne was educated at Winchester College and New College, Oxford.[2]


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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6]

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."[7]

As Director-General, Milne was involved with a series of controversies with the British government. Contentious programme-making included the Nationwide general election special with Margaret Thatcher in 1983, the coverage of the miners' strike of 1984–85, the Real Lives fracas,[a][8] the Panorama libel action,[b] the 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.[9]

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."[10]

The licence fee survived the negotiations, and the BBC made an expensive and failed attempt to enter satellite broadcasting.[4]

In September 1986, Marmaduke Hussey was appointed Chairman of the BBC Governors.[11] 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.[12] In an unprecedented step, Hussey convinced the Board of Governors that a change of direction was needed, and they forced Milne's resignation.[13]

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."[14]

Alasdair Milne, who later described the governors as a "bunch of amateurs",[5] resigned in January 1987.[11]

Post-resignation comments about the BBC

Milne was strongly critical of later BBC Director-General John Birt whom he called "blue skies Birt". Milne described Birt's thesis on television's so-called 'bias against understanding' as "balls, actually", and said

"[Birt is] the most graceless man I have ever known. Ghastly man".[15]

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."[16][17]

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."[18]

Personal life

He married Sheila Kirsten Graucob in 1954, who was of Danish and Irish ancestry; she died in 1992.[2][19] The couple had two sons, Ruairidh and Seumas and a daughter, Kirsty[5] (who died in July 2013).[20]

Alasdair Milne died on 8 January 2013 at age 82 after suffering from a series of strokes.[5]

See also


  1. ^ The Real Lives episode "At the Edge of the Union" included an interview with Martin McGuiness, and Milne and the BBC Governors initially prevented it from being broadcast following government complaints. It was eventually shown in October 1985.
  2. ^ On 30 January 1984, Panorama broadcast "Maggie's Militant Tendency". Neil Hamilton sued for libel, the BBC settled out of court.


  1. ^ Leapman, Michael (10 January 2013). "Alasdair Milne: BBC executive who rose to Director-General but was sacked under pressure from Mrs Thatcher". The Independent. Retrieved 30 October 2017.
  2. ^ a b c d "Alasdair Milne". The Daily Telegraph. 10 January 2013. Retrieved 20 October 2016.
  3. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 15 July 2011. Retrieved 29 January 2010.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  4. ^ a b Philip Purser Obituary: Alasdair Milne, The Guardian, 9 January 2013
  5. ^ a b c d Dan Sabbagh "Alasdair Milne, former BBC director general, dies aged 82", The Guardian, 9 January 2013
  6. ^ "Alasdair Milne – Obituaries – The Stage". 1 February 2013.
  7. ^ "1983: BBC wakes up to morning TV". BBC News. 17 January 1983. Retrieved 23 April 2010.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Hastings, Chris (2 July 2006). "Revealed: how the BBC used MI5 to vet thousands of staff". The Daily Telegraph. London. Retrieved 23 April 2010.
  10. ^ James McDonnell Public Service Broadcasting: A Reader, 1991, Routledge.
  11. ^ a b Maggie Brown "How BBC director general Alasdair Milne was hustled out by Hussey", The Guardian, 10 January 2013
  12. ^ Caroline Davies "Hussey, the man behind BBC shake-up, dies", The Daily Telegraph, 28 December 2006
  13. ^ "BBC – Press Office – Director-Generals".
  14. ^ DG: The Memoirs of a British Broadcaster. p. 201.
  15. ^ Snoddy, Raymond (9 January 2006). "Knives are out for the BBC bosses". The Independent. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  16. ^ Gibson, Owen (8 October 2004). "Former director general blames BBC women for 'dumb' shows". The Guardian.
  17. ^ "Ex-BBC boss slates 'dumb' shows". BBC News. 8 October 2004. Retrieved 1 January 2010.
  18. ^ "The wrath of Alasdair Milne".[permanent dead link]
  19. ^ Wilby, Peter (16 April 2016). "The Thin Controller". New Statesman. Retrieved 20 October 2016.
  20. ^ Iain Martin "Obituary: Kirsty Milne, journalist and academic", The Scotsman, 16 July 2013


  • DG: The Memoirs of a British Broadcaster, 1988.

External links

Media offices
Preceded by
Ian Trethowan
Director-General of the BBC
Succeeded by
Michael Checkland
This page was last edited on 17 April 2020, at 15:31
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