Director general fought off the threat of commercial TV
Historian DONALD STANLEY looks at how a man from Buckinghamshire helped shape British broadcasting
LARGELY forgotten, Sir Ian Trethowan was one of three men all with Buckinghamshire connections who shaped broadcasting in Britain.
Lord Reith of Harrias House, Beaconsfield, effectively founded the BBC and was its first director general.
Norman Collins, whose childhood home in Penn Road is now the branch of a building society, played a major role in ending the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly.
Collins had resigned as head of BBC Television to campaign for the introduction of commercial television, for which he invented the gentler term ‘independent television’.
He became a director of the newly-created ITN (Independent Television News) at a time when Trethowan was an assistant editor.
Both men had a background in newspapers – Collins on the News Chronicle, Trethowan with the Daily Sketch.
Sir Ian, who was born in High Wycombe, became managing director of BBC Radio and in 1977 director general.
Despite being a period marked by industrial disputes and financial troubles, the BBC was in good shape and in the process of throwing off of its stuffy ‘Auntie’ image.
It met competition from the independent channels, notwithstanding them being able to offer more money to top entertainers derived from advertising revenue, whereas, despite inflation, the corporation was dependent upon the fixed income from the licence fee.
It succeeded in attracting large followings with such comedies as Porridge and The Good Life and the Morecambe and Wise Christmas specials.
Radio listener numbers were increased by expanding stereo FM broadcasting and improving reception by adding medium wave to local radio.
Trethowan reversed the earlier trimming in a time of financial difficulties suffered by Radios 1 and 2.
The local radio station network was expanded and autonomous national ones introduced into Wales and Scotland.
Nonetheless, he was not averse to making unpopular decisions such as sacking Kenny Everett for becoming involved in controversies outside his remit as a wellknown DJ on Radio 1.
On the other hand, he moved among, and was liked by, his staff and enjoyed a reputation for being approachable.
It was an attitude that helped the BBC to deal better than the independent companies with the labour troubles faced by the industry at the end of the 1970s.
Trethowan’s defence of the corporation’s impartiality and balanced coverage brought him into conflict with the nation’s political leaders and, after five years in office, he resigned as director general.
BBC boss: (Clockwise from above) Sir Ian Trethowan; DJ Kenny Everett, who Sir Ian sacked; popular sitcoms The Good Life and Porridge