Sunday 26 May 2013
1927-38 John Reith
1938-42 Frederick Ogilvie
1944-52 William Haley
1952-59 Sir Ian Jacob
1960-69 Hugh Carleton Greene
1969-77 Charles Curran
1977-82 Ian Trethowan
1982-87 Alasdair Milne
1987-92 Michael Checkland
1992-2000 John Birt
2000-2004 Greg Dyke
2004- Mark Thompson
John Reith was quick to stamp his leadership on the tiny British Broadcasting Company. He was a broadcaster and programme maker, as well as shaping the organisation and laying down values that elevated the service from a technological experiment to a national institution.
He withstood the threat of a Government takeover during the General Strike, and in doing so won the trust of listeners and underlined the principle of a public service independent of political influence.
He was architect of the funding mechanism that survives today, and negotiated terms for the transfer of the Company to the Corporation under the first Royal Charter in 1927.
Under Frederick Ogilvie and subsequent wartime Director-Generals, the BBC caught the mood of the nation and forged stronger bonds than ever with audiences. The staff expanded rapidly as new foreign language services were introduced, and through its external services the BBC established an unrivalled reputation as a source people could trust.
But for Ogilvie, an economist and academic, the challenge of running a large organisation proved too great. He resigned in 1942 and returned to academic life.
John Reith put Cecil Graves in charge of the BBC Empire Service when it was launched in 1932, and he would have chosen Graves as his successor, rather than Ogilvie.
When eventually Graves did become Director-General, the role was shared with Robert Foot. Graves' particular experience lay in editorial matters. However his time at the top was limited by ill-health, and he stepped down after a year.
The twin-DG arrangement appears to have been harmonious. Robert Foot was a competent leader, but he was uncomfortable when sole responsibility for the BBC came to him.
A solicitor with a talent for administration, he had been general manager of the Gas, Light and Coke Company before coming to the BBC, and he was ready to return to the energy sector when the chairmanship of the Mining Association was offered in 1944.
William Haley sensed the moods of the nation both in the depths of the war, and as victory became a real prospect. The easy style of the BBC Forces Programme had struck a chord with everyone – not just servicemen and women – and out of it was fashioned the peacetime Light Programme, a fore-runner to Radios 1 and 2. The BBC Home Service aired such programmes as The Goon Show and The Archers for the first time.
But Haley's greatest contribution to the BBC was the creation of the Third Programme (later recast as Radio 3).
As director of BBC External Services, Ian Jacob had managed the transition from World War to Cold War, winning Government agreement that the BBC should remain an honest source, independent of political influence, in the face of Soviet propaganda. It put the Corporation in a strong position to stand up to Anthony Eden in the Suez Crisis of 1956.
At home Jacob was the first Director-General to embrace the new medium of television and pour resources into it. A new creative force was assembled, including such figures as Huw Wheldon and David Attenborough.
Among the great programmes of the time were Tonight, Panorama and the first TV arts strand, Monitor.
One of the few Director-Generals to emerge from the BBC ranks, Hugh Greene shook the BBC out of despondency in the face of ITV's growing success.
He persuaded the staff that competition was good for programmes, and as a result ensured that the corporation not only moved with the changing mood of the Sixties, but that it was itself at the forefront of change, with programmes such as That Was The Week That Was, Till Death Us Do Part and Monty Python's Flying Circus.
Developments in his time included the launch of BBC Two, colour television, BBC Local Radio, and the creation of Radios 1 to 4.
Charles Curran was a competent administrator and calming influence through a period of stark political division, industrial crisis and the three-day-week of 1973.
But it was also a golden age for the BBC. Income was rising sharply as viewers switched to colour television licences. As a result Ceefax was launched and Local Radio continued to expand.
Programme gems of the period included The Long March Of Everyman on radio and The Ascent Of Man and The Rise And Fall Of Reginald Perrin on television.
Ian Trethowan, a high-profile broadcast journalist who was widely trusted by audiences and politicians, led the BBC in choppy times. The country was hit by record inflation, union tension culminating in the Winter of Discontent (1978-79), and escalating conflict in Northern Ireland. The BBC also had to weather criticism over its coverage of the Falklands War.
But it was a successful period for programme innovation. Radio 4 introduced audiences to Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, Only Fools And Horses made its debut, and David Attenborough presented his first natural history blockbuster, Life On Earth.
The first television producer to become Director-General, Alasdair Milne had an unrivalled programme record (Tonight, That Was The Week That Was, The Great War).
He was instrumental in bringing the entire Shakespeare canon to the television screen, as well as one of the BBC's most acute and best loved comedies, Yes Minister. Landmark broadcasting events included Live Aid, the massive pop event precipitated by a BBC news report on famine in Africa.
He stood up for the BBC's independence in a series of rows with Government, and the licence fee survived the rigorous scrutiny of the Peacock Committee.
But in an unprecedented step, the Governors asked him to step down in 1987, believing that a change of direction was needed.
The growth of independent production houses, competition from independent facilities providers and the BBC's inability to compete with high pay in the commercial sector were just some of the challenges to face Mike Checkland.
A shrewd manager, he reduced overheads and allowed market forces to push down craft and facilities costs. As a result he was able to pour new money into programmes and services.
Public confidence in News and Current Affairs was restored with a new structure, and programme standards were underpinned with new guidelines for producers. Abroad, Mikhail Gorbachev endorsed the BBC World Service as the source he trusted most following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and at home Radio Five Live was launched.
John Birt introduced radical change in the direction and workings of the BBC. He commissioned the biggest-ever study of audiences and their needs, and redefined the BBC's public service role alongside the rapidly expanding commercial sector.
He won cross-party support for his plan to keep the corporation intact, centre-stage and accessible on all digital platforms in the new technological age.
It proved a difficult time for the organisation, but the reward was a new Charter in 1996, and extra funding to meet the cost of going digital. Along the way there was unprecedented investment in journalism.
Innovations ranged from the city-based classical Music Live festivals to the Teletubbies. He left in 2000, after the BBC had masterminded coverage of Millennium celebrations for a vast global audience.
Greg Dyke made an instant impact inside the BBC, engaging with staff as few director-generals had done before.
He recognised the need to compete for large audiences at a national level, while beefing up services for local audiences as the ITV regional network began to wilt.
He launched Freeview, paving the way for free-to-air digital services in every home, and BBC services were transformed with the launch of four new national television stations and five national radio services – more than it had launched in the previous 80 years.
But his tenure was cut short following the row with the Government over a Today programme report questioning the case for going to war in Iraq.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.