Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Diary

Article excerpt

By now they must have finished sifting the 79 applications and be drawing up the actual shortlist for the chairmanship of the BBC. Nothing as remotely exciting has ever happened in that strange Trafalgar Square annexe of government, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. It is, of course, an absurd ministry, originally invented, if under the different name of National Heritage, by John Major to oblige his mate David Mellor. (Memo to prime ministers: it is nearly always a bad idea to create ministries to suit the convenience of individuals - Mellor soon proved that and so, if in a different way, did George Brown at the DEA in the 1960s.) Nor do I see much hope of Tessa Jowell being able to justify the continued existence of her department by the piece of patronage business that now confronts it. The DCMS may have been responsible for devising the advertisement - trendily headed 'Appointment of BBC Chair' - but everyone knows that it is not Ms Jowell who will make the final decision. That will be done by No. 10, principally on the ground of whose name will play best with the public. Which is why my money is on David Dimbleby, the only contender - whatever his unpopularity with the greyer BBC apparatchiks - capable of arousing a spark of popular interest.

We used, of course, to make appointments of this kind in a much more relaxed fashion. Duke Hussey relates in his memoirs how he was rung up out of the blue by Douglas Hurd, the then Home Secretary, and told, 'Oh, Dukie, it's Douglas Hurd here. I've a very odd question to ask - would you like to be chairman of the BBC?' But for sheer rich comedy even that can't quite beat the story of how in 1967 the news of the appointment of the old fruity wartime 'Radio Doctor' - one Charles Hill - first broke upon the world. Although every rotund inch the hand-picked nominee of Harold Wilson, it fell to the Postmaster General of the day to convey the tidings to the BBC. Ted Short (now glorified as Lord Glenamara) did so by summoning the vice-chairman of the governors to his headquarters in St Martin Le Grand and solemnly intoning in front of a whole throng of civil servants, 'The new chairman of the BBC is to be Charles Smith.' There was a puzzled hush before, just in the nick of time, a resourceful private secretary managed to hiss: 'Hill, sir, not Charles Smith but Charles Hill.' Those, as Harry Davidson used to say, were the days.

What caused the sudden and abrupt withdrawal of the hardback volume of Harold Macmillan's Diaries last spring? I suspect I may have cracked the mystery. Glancing through the paperback edition, I noticed that the name of Gerald Kaufman had ceased to appear in the text and was relegated to a purely factual footnote (Kaufman was Macmillan's opponent in the 1955 general election in Bromley). Yet in the original version I was sent for a review a year ago - before having it snatched back by the publishers - I distinctly recall Macmillan ruminating in highly unattractive fashion on the Jewish characteristics of his Labour rival. (That was certainly par for the course: this was, after all, the same man who once denounced a Thatcher Cabinet for containing 'more Estonians than Etonians'. …

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