Northern Ireland training ground for new BBC leadership

I was going to headline this: “BBC NI ex News trainee becomes Director General. ” But then nearly all the bright young things in London HQ in the 1970s were blooded (figuratively) in the Belfast newsroom at the height of the Troubles. BBC News and current Affairs was the forcing ground for  familiar luminaries Jeremy Paxman, Gavin Esler and Bill Neely ( Spotlight). Among those who enhanced their reputation outside the BBC later were Chris Graham, former head the Advertising  Standards Authority  now UK Information Commissioner and  Lance Price deputy to Alastair Campbell in Blair’s No 10 ( both Newsroom) and Nick Ross (Radio Current Affairs) formerly of Crimewatch but now probably best known for selling his Notting Hill ( London!) home for £35 million.

Probably the two most influential are the back room boys Richard Ayre , once deputy head of BBC News and head of editorial policy, now a compulsive regulator, former Ofcom member and now a member of the BBC Trust. And finally Tony Hall himself now  hailed as Director General designate. Along with me, both of them were Scene Around Six journalists, BBC Newsline’s distinguished predecessor.

Last week I speculate that Richard Ayre leaned over to Chris Patten the beleaguered Chairman of the Trust (himself blooded in Northern Ireland as a junior minister on the early 1980s and lead author of the Patten report on policing reform ) and said to him: “I know just the guy for DG. I used to work with him in Belfast.” And  behold, it came to pass.  it might just have been a bit more complicated than that, but the two go back a long way. And no, before you ask: regrettably I was not consulted. However I predict that that the bubble of the BBC internal crisis will now burst as quickly as it blew up.

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  • sherdy

    As Sinatra used to sing: ‘If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere…’

  • iluvni

    Patten should have gone along with Entwhistle

  • forthman

    The BBC? That refined instrument of propaganda and thought control. Masterly!! Auntie…ooh the shivers of safeness and of decent middle class, glory in our imperial past, respect for the ruling order, calmness…oh..ah…eh…STOP!…Thank goodness I woke up. For a minute there I was being sucked in and brainwashed by other people who do not realise/don’t care(same political ideology) who force this crap down people’s throats. Why should citizens in the south, subjects in the north, be forced, under threat of criminalisation, to endure state controlled broadcasting?

  • Here’s a little extra background ire radiation …… …… Toxic Waste from the Past and not Necessary for the Future.

  • Brian Walker

    Poor old forthman, so cross, at least when he types. We have public not state broadcasting in the UK. The evidence, apart from the legal position? The rows the BBC has with “the State.”

  • It seems odd that this position has been filled without the ‘inconvenience’ of a public competition. That’s another lesson learned from Northern Ireland, I suppose.

  • Harry Flashman

    I seem to recall Nick Witchell was a Scene Around Six regular around the time of the hunger strikes. Paxman and Esler have been mentioned but I’m sure there were several others too.

    Anyone remember?

  • GavBelfast

    I think you are right, Harry.

    Another one I remember is Patrick Burns. He still presents for BBC in the English Midlands.

    I also recall that Ulster Television used to sometimes take a bit of a ‘dig’ at that aspect of BBC NI, by saying that their own programmes were local news with local reporters.

  • forthman

    Sorry Brian, not angry, only slightly irritated by the direct Debit I have to fork out each month to subsidise a narrow political world view which I find very distasteful.
    I don’t consider sham fights between sections of the establishment as proof that we have ‘public’ and not state broadcasting. They just have had longer and are better at the sutbilties of pretence than our overseas friends.

  • Harry Flashman

    Thanks Gav, yes Patrick Burns he was another.

    I see that Brian mentioned Lance Price and Gavin Esler too, if I recall they, and Witchell, all ended up as Washington correspondents at one time (with obligatory white mackintosh overcoats which always seemed to go along with the DC post).

    A long way from reporting on the latest shooting in Desertmartin or factory closure in Craigavon. Jesus, just remembering those grim evenings in front of the telly in the 1970s and 80s make me glad I got the feck out of that place.

  • Brian Walker


    If these were sham fights I’d like to see a real one. The October revolution in 1917 I suppose.

    I won’t spoil the fun by joining the memory trail of recalling GB reporters and others who worked for BBC NI for a time, as distinct from those massed ranks – almost all of them – who worked on regular shifts for the networks.

    In the post above I was highlighting those who became known for other achievements.

    I’ll make one exception whom few will know about.. A producer called Bernard Wiggins came from the old Nationwide programme in the late 1970s and stayed to edit Spotlight for a while ( which I did later).

    In the bar , as you did, we reminisced and dreamed.

    “You know,” he told me one bleary evening, “ one day, I’m going to write historical novels that do for the army what CS Forester did for the navy with the Hornblower stories”

    “ Yea right, Bernard, “ I replied , “ mine’s a G&T.”

    But so he did, as Bernard Cornwell, adopting his mother’s maiden name to get up the alphabetical list on the book shelves.

    As he recounts here,

    Bernard fell in love at first sight as he was making a tongue- in- cheek Spotlight film about attracting tourists from the US in that unhappy time. What he doesn’t add, being I suppose a detail too far for the piece, is that she was called – aptly in a way – Judy Cashdollar.

    Bernard left for the States and quite soon began to write. The Sharpe novels set in the Peninsular Wars and their TV spin-offs were born.

    The rest was history, in more ways than one.

  • forthman


    I don’t doubt the affection you still have for the institution which you give many a years hard graft, and of the many friendships that I’m sure you developed over the years. I also do not doubt that a very many of the BBC NI employees over the years, on a personal level, are very decent people.
    My criticism of the BBC does, however still stand. This is borne out of my lifestime experience of the insideous and often overt British establishment/unionist ethos which seeps unabated out of ‘auntie’. This is the reality of the republican view and it will not be changing anytime soon. Like it or not, republicans make up a very significant minority of license payers, who know the beeb is hostile to their aspirations.
    How many BBC pesenters past and present, did not go to a grammar school? How many went to a secondary school and have a republican outlook?

  • Brian Walker

    Forthman, on the other hand it’s often been a gamefor of some unionist politicians to accuse today’s BBC of being biased against unionism simply from a count of Catholic names. Ridiculous.

    True, if you look for a dominant republican ethos you will be disappointed. I would not deny that the BBC shared many of the assumptions of a unionist establishment long ago, even when it stood for fair reporting. . But when that establishment fragmented the assumptions changed. And for several decades now the forces in society have changed utterly.

    In one sense BBC balance is tried and tested. In another sense the viewpoints represented (but not held by the BBC) are constantly shifting. The emergence of the political extremes as the largest parties will have caused problems. As neither the DUP not SF stood for consensus politics you might have thought neither might have been satisfied. And yet when you look at broad satisfaction from the audience, forthman, you are in a small minority.

    It seems the audience doesn’t want the BBC to be a simple reflector of any single position and are content to have their own side examined, provided the other side is given the same treatment. Now that both the DUP and SF have shifted towards the centre the problem of an isolated centre, so rare in western politics, has eased.

    BBC output is much more than News of course. It documentary, drama and features output has in no way been constrained by the border or the northern political divide.

  • forthman


    Firstly, unionist politicians will object to anyone with a ‘catholic name'(I assume you mean an Irish name?), unless the occasionally appear at a unionist Ard Fheis indulging in a spot of Sinn Fein bashing. So I wouldn’t read too much into that.
    This broad satisfaction you talk off is fanciful. As is any assertion of balance, the more discerning viewer knows only too well.
    As someone who subscibes to Mr.Murdock’s SKY tv. I do so in the full knowledge of the editorial bias of its flagship news channel. I make that choice, and that’s the fundamental difference. I will not be criminalised for cancelling my subscription. Why can’t the BBC take its chances in the real world? The BBC is an over endulged protected species which loves nothing better than a bout of self righteous back slapping and proclaiming how superior they are to everyone else.