A Multifaceted Career in Radio
David Harris reviews the autobiography of John Tusa, a former managing director of the BBC World Service
David Harris reviews the autobiography of John Tusa, a former managing director of the BBC World Service, looking back over a long and varied career in radio, television and the arts.
Tusa, John (2018) Making a Noise: Getting it Right, Getting it Wrong in Life, The Arts and Broadcasting (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson); 392 pp. Hbk. £25.
Sir John Tusa (b.1936) had an impressive career in broadcasting, culminating in the post of managing director of the BBC World Service. He later went on to become managing director of the Barbican Centre.
Even in retirement, Tusa was still the Chair of Governors of the University of the Arts, London.
There seems to be something almost inevitable about major establishment figures writing their autobiography, and Tusa has approached this book as if it were an ‘official history’.
Tusa was born in the Czech Republic and moved to England in 1939, where his father ran a Bata shoe factory. The first 126 pages of the book are devoted to the first 24 years of his life at prep school, public school, during National Service and at Cambridge.
The chapters are very detailed, including a plethora of names, dates and places.
However, there is little in the way of reflection.
Tusa is a very clever man who gets on with life. Nevertheless, I could not find much of interest in the first one-third of the book. Most autobiographies tend to condense the early years into one chapter before getting on with the ‘meat’ of a person’s life.
For the reader with an interest in broadcasting, I would suggest starting with Chapter Six, when Tusa joins the BBC as a general graduate trainee. This was a two-year training programme, designed to select future senior managers of the BBC.
He started in the BBC External Services (now the BBC World Service) in the Overseas Talks and Features Department. As part of his training, he was seconded to BBC Bristol, which he found very provincial. He was relieved when he was moved to Manchester and then back to London.
In 1962, he began his permanent career, as a producer with the BBC External Services.
In 1966, he left the BBC to join the CIA-funded Forum World Features, where he remained for a couple of years, before becoming a freelance broadcaster.
He began his television work as a presenter on The Money Programme and Nationwide, before joining Newsnight in 1978. In 1984, he was awarded the Journalist of the Year award by the Royal Television Society.
His career really moved up by a few gears in 1986, when he was appointed managing director of BBC External Services. In 1990, Tusa wrote a book about the BBC World Service (Conversations with the World).
I would have liked to have read more about his time at the BBC World Service, but he seems to have allocated only so many pages to each year of his life.
Tusa did a lot to increase reception of the BBC worldwide, through the opening of new relay stations; one of his triumphs was to get the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher to take part in a phone-in from listeners in Russia in 1990.
He regrets the BBC’s short-sightedness when it came to global television. His TV ideas were rejected in 1986, and this enabled the American CNN network to achieve its global dominance.
It was not until 1992 that BBC World TV started.
The BBC in the early 1990s was a very troubled organisation. Tusa characterises it as, “infighting, gossip, malice, viciousness and incompetence”. The politics of the BBC has already been covered in books such as The BBC – Myth of Public Service, by Tom Mills (reviewed in RadioUser, April 2017: 29) and Pinkoes and Traitors by Jean Seaton (reviewed in RadioUser, July 2017: 25).
The author felt aggrieved at not being invited to apply for the post of director-general of the BBC. He describes a situation of ‘open warfare’ between the governors and senior management. Leadership was dysfunctional, and governors had more power than management. Tusa blames the problems of the BBC squarely on the Chair, Marmaduke Hussey and Vice Chair Joel Barnett.
Eventually, Tusa reflects on the ‘tyranny’ within the BBC, under the leadership of John Birt and on the broadcaster’s alleged obsession with management consultants and ‘management-speak’.
In the end, Tusa left the World Service in 1994, in order to present News at One on BBC TV.
He then had a brief interlude as president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, before being appointed managing director of the Barbican Centre in London in 1995.
He had finally found his true niche in life, turning around this arts organisation, where he enjoyed 12 very successful years.
The book concludes with an account of his time as chair of the governors at the University of the Arts, London.
Overall, I feel that, perhaps, this book is a little uneven; it could have focused more on John Tusa’s career at the BBC. The author has published a number of books about the arts. However, his years at the BBC could have justified an entire book-length title on its own.
This article was featured in the October 2018 issue of Radio User