Former director general of the BBC Lord Michael Grade tackles Savile, Lord McAlpine, press regulation and the future of TV in a candid, no holds barred interview with Jason Stone, editor, David Reviews as part of The Drum Live.
Michael Grade in conversation with Jason Stone
It’s hard to think of a single individual who has a greater influence on British television than Michael Grade and – even though he’s no longer in the thick of it – when he talks, it pays to listen. That’s why it was an enormous privilege to interview him in front of an attentive audience at The Drum Live on Wednesday 3 July and quiz him about his experiences in television and his views on the challenges facing modern broadcasters and journalists.During a wide-ranging conversation, Grade offered insightful points of view on many of today’s burning issues and provided an extremely positive reply to those who believe he’s ideally placed to help usher in the proposals recommended by Lord Leveson following last year’s lengthy inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press.Reading Grade’s autobiography in preparation for the event, I discovered that his first stint at the BBC was marked by a series of controversies that bear a remarkable resemblance to the furore provoked by Newsnight’s decision to drop a story that would have exposed Jimmy Savile’s crimes and the subsequent debacle prompted by its ill-fated attempt to expose Lord McAlpine as a paedophile.Did Grade also see these similarities, and how did he think the BBC should have handled the crisis? “Everybody accepts that you make very big mistakes in life... terrible things happen, it’s just the way it is. In the end, the public judges you on how you manage the crisis. How upfront you are, how honest you are, how straightforward you are.”Grade argues that all big organisations can learn from the action taken by Johnson & Johnson in 1982 when packages of the pain relief product Tylenol were contaminated by a deadly amount of cyanide: “Within hours [Johnsons] withdrew every packet of these headache pills which, of course, was the right way to handle it.” Grade believes that any attempt to play down the seriousness of the crisis would have killed the brand: “They took it head on... and they came back with a tamper-proof package.” As a consequence, people welcomed Tylenol back when it reappeared on the shelves of their local pharmacies.Grade contrasts this approach with the attempts by News Corp to defend itself when the allegations about phone hacking first emerged. “The publisher said that ‘it’s an isolated case... it’s one rogue reporter,’ and then over a period of months, a bit more came out and then a bit more came out.” In his view, it could all have been avoided if New Corp had come clean at the earliest opportunity.Grade reveals that he opted for the ‘full disclosure’ option when faced with the premium phone-line scandal during his time at ITV: “I called everyone to the office at eight o’clock on the Monday morning and I said ‘Tylenol’.” Grade shut down the phone-lines... like Johnson & Johnson, he ‘removed the product from the shelves’ until he could be confident that it was no longer contaminated.According to Grade, the BBC’s mistake is to see itself as infallible: “The default position is ‘we’re not wrong... we are the BBC and we’re never wrong,’ and that’s why it gets itself into a muddle.” On Newsnight’s Jimmy Savile programme, the BBC has to ask itself: “Why didn’t we transmit the programme? We had Jimmy Saville bang to rights. We had a public interest programme. To this day, I don’t know why they didn’t transmit it.”He dismisses any suggestion that Newsnight didn’t want to strike a different tone to the various tributes being broadcast by other parts of the BBC: “There’s nothing BBC journalists like more than sticking it to the Entertainment department. That’s what they come into work to do.”Having failed to run the Savile story, how then did Newsnight manage to libel Lord McAlpine? “It was just a misjudgement... a lack of legal process,” he says, before witheringly adding that asking their witness to make sure he’d identified the right man was something that should have been learned during “lesson two at journalism school”.He compares these episodes of shoddy journalism with the infamous conversation between John Humphrys and Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme during which the allegation emerged that Alastair Campbell had “sexed up” the document used to justify Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War: “If you’re going to accuse the government of misleading the British public, you’d better get it on the air in a way that is utterly defensible. That’s what you have to do with a really hot story... but they ad-libbed it.” For Grade the worst aspect of the episode was the failure to nail the story: “If the allegation was right – and I suspect it probably was – they didn’t get it on air in a way that was acceptable.” He feels this failure was so grave that it meant the BBC was obliged to accept the findings of the inquiry led by Lord Hutton, even though it had essentially got the story right in the first place.Having witnessed some of Jimmy Savile’s odd behaviour at close hand, did Grade feel that he and senior colleagues at the BBC were unhealthily incurious about his activities? “It’s your business to get involved if you hear rumours or complaints.” But, according to Grade, there was nothing more than “speculation in the bar” about Savile. “People would say ‘I wonder what he gets up to,’ but nobody knew. Nobody came to me and said ‘I’m a bit worried about young girls going into his dressing room’ or anything like that. I don’t think anybody knew.”In a recent article in The Guardian, Peter Preston suggested that Michael Grade is ideally qualified to act as midwife for the recommendations made by Lord Leveson which, it is hoped, will create a form of newspaper regulation that strikes the right balance between a free press and the right to privacy. Is he interested in the role? “If anybody asks me to do it, I’ll have to have a look at it... we need to get a new regulatory structure up and running as fast as possible. And that means a new regulator who is entirely independent of the press.“What everybody seems to forget is that Leveson said that regulations should be voluntary. You don’t have to sign up for this so it’s very important to get the confidence of the publishers.” But he stresses the need to set up the successor to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) as soon as possible and without “losing any of the good stuff that the PCC does”. “That could be done tomorrow, frankly. All the business of the Royal Charter... that can be done later.”Grade still has a great deal of faith in self-regulation, even though he accepts that it has to be constructed in a fashion that satisfies the public, and he feels it’s important to bear in mind that “hacking telephones is a criminal act”. He points out that the reporters who were responsible for these gross invasions of privacy “risked prison” to do what they did and wonders what sanctions would be necessary to avoid a recurrence: “Shall we give the new press regulator powers of summary execution?”Journalists should, according to Grade, learn to distinguish stories involving matters of genuine public interest from mere tittle-tattle: “I would be quite prepared to hack a telephone if it was going to give me a major story that was in the public interest, and if it was the only way of getting the story, not a shortcut. If we’d explored every avenue and we had prima facie evidence that such-and-such had his or her hand in the public purse, no jury’s going to convict you [for hacking phones in those circumstances].”Grade feels that Leveson’s inquiry was a cathartic experience for the whole country: “It was the first time in my lifetime the press was called to account. I think it will change the culture of newspapers. They will have to take much more responsibility. They are so fond of calling people to account, but where’s their transparency? Where’s their sense of responsibility?”Michael Grade was the master scheduler. During his time with each of the main broadcasters he managed to boost audience share through his instinctive sense of the public’s appetite and its priorities, but does he feel the role is still important now that people can largely watch programmes whenever they want? Surprisingly, he does: “It’s as important as it ever was because you still want to deliver the right demographic and the biggest possible audience.” He firmly believes that television still offers the best option to advertisers: online can’t give you “the impact of 30 seconds during The X Factor. And the scheduler’s job is to deliver maximum eyeballs to the screen.”He shrugs away any criticism of modern schedulers and sincerely believes that the task is still executed with the same diligence he brought to the role, even hinting that ITV’s recent resurgence is due to director of television Peter Fincham’s strong belief in the importance of scheduling.Grade’s masterful performance at The Drum Live demonstrates that he remains a formidable figure with an extraordinary grasp of detail. If the call comes to help establish a new body to regulate the press, his steely amiability may be exactly what’s required. As the publishers, politicians and lobbying groups drift further apart, it will become harder and harder to achieve a consensus and it’s clear that the task may require a charismatic figure to ride in and save the day. Time to saddle up, Mr Grade.Grade currently sits on the board of live events and marketing agency WRG.This feature is part of The Drum Live issue, published 19 July – available for purchase at The Drum store.