Anthony Howard

Diary - 20 March 2004

Excitement as the Department for Culture, Media and Sport actually has something to do.

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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’.) Only one doubt remains. What persuaded the publishers — the House of Macmillan, natch — to take the highly offensive but hardly defamatory words out? I would like to believe it was a sense of shame but am afraid it is much more likely to have been a fear of reprisal on the part of the seemingly perpetual chairman of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee.

It was the happily immortal Milton Shulman who once advised me that after your 62nd birthday you should never ever admit to your age in a newspaper office. I am sure he was right — though nowadays keeping that kind of secret is a bit more difficult. Take, for example, those lists of birthdays which, without a by-your-leave, appear in all the broadsheet newspapers. Even if, as Milton Shulman did some years ago, you take your date of birth out of Who’s Who, there is no guarantee of privacy — indeed it was in one of those lists last September that I first read that Milton was 90. As a fully paid-up nonagenarian he certainly qualifies to join the select band of ‘veteran journalists’ — other leading members: the just-retired Alistair Cooke (95) and the still-going-strong Bill Deedes (90). As a mere stripling of 70 I prefer, like Lord Beaverbrook at the age of 85, to look upon myself as ‘an apprentice’.

The mention of the illustrious Bill Deedes — and the invocation of what is essentially a craft term — reminds me of the one serious disagreement we ever had. During the course of a gig we did together in Shrewsbury a couple of years ago, I happened casually to say that journalism was in no sense a profession but rather (at best) a trade. In so far as the invariably genial Lord Deedes can put on a face of thunder, he did so then. But I’m afraid I remain quite unrepentant. With no necessary exams to get through or essential qualifications to acquire, a journalist can no more claim to belong to a profession than can a politician. Maybe that is why — since in his time he has been both — the doyen of British journalism looked so cross.

Incidentally, back on the subject of broadcasting, there is one word whose constant use never fails to perplex me. It has become almost impossible to listen to any vox pop interview on radio or television without hearing the adverb ‘definitely’ intrude at least once. Yet when I travel by bus or Tube it’s an expression I seldom, if ever, hear. The only explanation I can offer is that, confronted by a camera or having a microphone thrust in front of their faces, people feel that they are expected to be that much more emphatic than they would ever dream of being in ordinary life.

Writing this Diary, I realised with a shock that it must be all but 50 years since my byline first appeared in The Spectator. In October 1954 it surfaced at the top of a regular slot called ‘Undergraduate’, identifying ‘Anthony Howard (Christ Church, Oxford)’ as the author of a piece entitled ‘The Keys of Eloquence’. It was all about the experience of delivering a speech to the Oxford Union, and on rereading it I found it awful, self-regarding, cringe-making stuff. Ah well, even if times change, they do say old habits die hard.