Magazine article The Spectator

Why I Can't Bring Myself to Join in the National Rejoicing over Michael Grade

Magazine article The Spectator

Why I Can't Bring Myself to Join in the National Rejoicing over Michael Grade

Article excerpt

Michael Grade's appointment as the new chairman of the BBC has won universal praise from every quarter. Tessa Jowell, the Culture Secretary, and Julie Kirkbride, her Tory shadow, both like him. The editors of the Daily Express and the Financial Times think he is fine. Columnists and profile-writers sing his praises. Even the Daily Mail, which raged against Mr Grade as a pornographer when he was chief executive of Channel 4, declared that 'we unhesitatingly wish him the best of luck'.

No doubt there is something wrong with me, but I cannot quite bring myself to join in this national rejoicing. I am sure that Mr Grade is a larger-than-life character and marvellous raconteur, as every profile of him tells us. He has undoubtedly been a very successful businessman. He is probably a wonderful man-manager. But these qualities will be of very limited use to him in his new role. The chairman of the BBC has no executive duties. He is, above all, the custodian of the Corporation, the person who must do whatever he can to ensure that the BBC remains true to its values. For all his virtues, Mr Grade is a lightweight.

He has already tried his hand at public-service broadcasting during his nine-year stint at Channel 4. No one would say, I think, that when he left the channel in 1997 he had raised the standard of its programmes. Some of them were distinguished - playwrights such as Dennis Potter and Alan Bleasdale were commissioned - but Mr Grade generally lowered the tone. He was responsible for The Word, which once showed a man having the contents of a colostomy bag emptied over his head, as well as a vomiting Santa Claus. On another occasion it featured a man known as 'Mr Powertool' pulling a girl on a chair across the studio, having perhaps somewhat recklessly attached it to his penis. When the Independent Television Commission censured The Word in June 1995, Mr Grade accused the watchdog of being 'out of touch'.

I will not weary the reader with a full description of the egregious programmes which emerged during the Grade years, from Eurotrash, which depicted bizarre and graphic sexual practices, to The Red Zone, which featured transsexuals, strippers and prostitutes, to Dyke TV, which speaks for itself, to The Girlie Show which showed. . . . Well, let's leave it at that. The list is long. This is the stuff of drunken stag nights. Insofar as these programmes have been mentioned since Mr Grade's appointment as chairman of the BBC - and they haven't been much - two defences have been entered, both of which strike me as feeble. In the first place, it is said that Mr Grade left the commissioning to his director of programmes, and therefore should not be blamed for these intermittent displays of poor taste. This is so absurd an argument that we need not bother with it. The second line of defence is simply to vilify Mr Grade's former critics. On Radio Four's Today programme, David Elstein, a former chief executive of Channel Five who has himself been responsible for a few late-night bodice-rippers in his time, described the Daily Mail as having made 'scurrilous' accusations. He could have denied that these programmes were pornographic, though in my view he would have been hard pushed to do so; or he might have asked whether a little pornography is such a bad thing after all. He did neither, and the issue was closed down by disparaging the Daily Mail, which always goes down well with many people. Elsewhere it was barely raised at all.

Mr Grade is not, of course, a pornographer in the sense that Richard Desmond, owner of the Express Group, is. …

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