Now entrenched in the Establishment and many years away from the passionate young Ulsterman who set out to rebuild a family fortune, the BBC chairman still wields a caustic wit as he ponders the qualities needed by the broadcast service's next director-general.
By ANDREW DAVIDSON.
Sir Christopher Bland has bought my new book. He tells me so on the phone before I start writing this piece. He ordered it from amazon.com - very modern, despite the fact they had misspelt the title. Bloody Americans.
Just before that, he had told me not to contact someone I wanted to speak to about his early life. There were personal reasons. Bland laid them out and I agreed. It was reasonable. Then I thought: is this a quid pro quo? Am I just a complete patsy, taken in by the wiles of one of Britain's great corporate persuaders?
Possibly. It is difficult to tell with Bland. Part charmer, part bully, he has ploughed through industry and media with dextrous elan. Now chairman of both the BBC, the world's most famous broadcaster, and NFC, a slightly less well-known logistics multinational, he has matured into an Establishment chief who has briskly made a transition from Conservative to Labour patronage.
At 60, he is already rich from the proceeds of being taken over twice, has established a reputation as a highly effective chairman, and is known to be a shrewd caller-in of favours.
He is also acerbic, competitive and probably manipulative, like any good chairman. In fact, he seems to have been a chairman a lot longer than he was ever chief executive of anything. When I put that to him, he is rather peeved. Characteristically, he then turns it into a running joke.
'Leith's School of Food and Wine; I'm chairman of that, too. Of course, I only do chairman,' he hisses. 'I was chairman of my kindergarten.' I first met him 10 years ago when he was chairman of London Weekend Television.
He was thinner, tougher, even more caustic then. To me, he always seemed an unlikely ITV boss, much more switched on to the City than his peers and a little contemptuous of others in the network, rather like his close friend Michael Green, the boss of Carlton. At LWT, he formed a successful partnership with Greg Dyke, his chief executive and protege. Together, probably with a little help from Green, they prospered in the 1991 ITV franchise round, and when LWT was subsequently taken over by Gerry Robinson's Granada, they walked away from LWT very rich men, due to a lucrative golden handcuff share deal devised by Bland to stop his executives being poached.
It created wealth for a few and resentment among many, in roughly equal measure. Bland then resurfaced at the BBC.
It was the LWT mob, many of whom have close connections to New Labour, that probably ensured Bland's position was secure at the BBC when the government changed in 1997. Now, of course, the BBC will shortly announce a new director-general to replace Sir John Birt, and many believe Bland is itching to roll out the welcome mat for his old mate Greg, who happens to be a regular donor of funds to the Labour party. When Bland and I met, the issue of Dyke's suitability to run the BBC was beginning to boil over in the press. Most already assumed he was Bland's choice.
'It's not my appointment to make,' Bland points out firmly, perched on the edge of a white sofa in his fourth-floor office in Broadcasting House. The room, which curves round the front of the building, is dotted with his collection of Eric Gill engravings.
Oh, come on. The chairman of the BBC has a huge say ...
'Well, yes, but all 12 governors of the BBC are closely involved in the process.'
Does the eventual decision have to be unanimous? 'No. I think it will be astonishing if it is - but the decision has to be supported by everyone.' Does he have his own favourites? 'No,' he says. The little dark eyes stare unflinchingly. 'Well, I mean, I read that I do ...'
He's teasing. Then he smiles. His eyebrows arch into little semicircles.
It is a typical Bland pose, his equivalent of the boxer's 'come on, give me another'.
He has an odd face: tall brow, small eyes, little mouth and determined chin. Sometimes it is very hard to read. Is he listening, or laughing at some private joke? When he gives that toothy, schoolboy smile, his head looks like a giant, unpeeled nut. Perhaps that's what prompted Dyke to complain once that, while no one doubted Bland's intellect, if he did have a flaw it was that 'he had the attention span of a peanut'.
It was a silly exaggeration but made a point: Bland has always juggled three or four lives at once - media, industry, public service - and has achieved so much by being very economical with his time. 'I don't do plumbing' is his favourite boardroom catchphrase, according to one of his executives.
He does broad strategy, checks the figures, bangs heads together and moves quickly on to the next issue. Unlike most bullies, however, he does like people who stand up to him.
Will the new director-general of the BBC have a different job description to Birt's? 'No - the same,' says Bland, 'but will he do it in the same way? Almost certainly not.'
Will the chairman's role be more powerful? 'That's possible, but I think it is unlikely. The roles of chairman and governor are pretty clear (to guard the public interest). The DG runs the show.' He pauses for effect.
'If I wanted to be DG,' he says, spelling it out as if English is no longer my first language, 'then I would apply.'
That little smile again. What is clear is that Bland did want the job of BBC chairman and the trappings of power and persuasion it gave him.
He nudged his friend Virginia Bottomley, into whose ministerial fiefdom it fell in 1996, to give it to him. They had worked together before in the health service, where Bland, while chairing LWT, was also chairman of the Hammersmith Hospitals NHS Trust. There he successfully merged two very large, very different hospitals, Charing Cross and Hammersmith. It is a little-written-about part of his career but undoubtedly a vital one.
Doctors at the Trust credit Bland with dissuading Bottomley from closing the Hammersmith, an expensive academic hospital that seemed to offer poor value for money in the new, market-led NHS.
'His links to the Conservative party were vital for us,' says Nick Wright, deputy principal at the Imperial College School of Medicine in Hammersmith.
'He is a very forceful personality.' It was at Hammersmith, more than anywhere, that Bland learned the mechanics of heading an organisation where external pressure was matched only by internal divisions. That experience, for which Bland won his knighthood, was vital. As Birt points out, you cannot chair the BBC with commercial experience alone. The pressures are too diverse. And Birt (another LWT alumni) is a big Bland fan. 'Christopher is a passionate, vigorous, life-loving man, who throws himself into his work with real conviction,' he enthuses. 'Unlike a lot of people with those characteristics, he is also very clever and is on top of all the issues.'
Other qualities? He has a 'real, visceral reaction to bullshit', says Jerry Murphy, his chief executive at NFC, but is steadfast in support of his executives, 'if they are straight with him'. At the BBC, where so many interest groups have conflicting aims, serious rows over the World Service and the Six O'Clock News in Scotland have come and gone in the last three years. The flak just pops off Bland's robust exterior. Robust is a key Bland word.
It's a quality drilled into him by a dislocated childhood and tough schooling. His father was a marketing man for Shell who worked in Africa and Jamaica; his mother a teacher. Bland and his younger brother were sent to prep school in Ulster and later to Sedburgh in Yorkshire, the sort of expensive school that delights in the bleakness of its conditions.
Holidays were spent with cousins in Northern Ireland. Parents were seen once a year. He missed them. His mother, rather than his father, was probably the crucial influence, he says. 'She was ambitious for me. My father was not really that ambitious. He was more interested in fishing.' Bland inherited that as well as his father's love of telling stories. Caroline Waldegrave, his partner in Leith's, says she is still laughing at the speech he gave at journalist Simon Jenkins' fiftieth birthday party.
Bland was clearly no slouch academically and read history at Oxford after National Service. There contemporaries remember him as a rather different figure to now: not the cultured Anglo-Irish aristocrat that he plays up to (the first Bland went over to Ireland in 1698 and the family settled in County Kerry) but as a prickly, passionate Paisleyite Ulsterman keen to rebuild the family fortune. He was good with money, punting his £400 allowance on the stock exchange, and an aggressive fencer. Back then, it was clear that financial success was his driving aim. 'He has always been intensely focused, able to put things aside and not look at the peripheral,' says his oldest Oxford friend, Tony Gibson, now a Tyneside solicitor.
Throughout his subsequent business and political career - juggling early jobs at Singer, Curry's and Booz Allen, with brief stints as a Tory GLC councillor and IBA regulator - that focus stood him in good stead.
His weakness has always been his impatience and a sharp tongue, which made him ill-suited for politics. He has often appeared torn between his urge to make money and a yen to spend it on life's finer things. Even before he made his first million, he was buying old glass and good pictures.
'I think he felt he had a heritage, he came from an old family and he didn't get much out of it,' suggests Gibson. The Bland whom everyone sees today - knighted, with large houses in Hampshire and Gascony and a phoneless fishing bothy off Cape Wrath (you can reach him by contacting the coastguard), bands of important friends, lots of shooting, wine collecting, giving speeches to the Trollope Society, entertaining the Queen at Broadcasting House - is very much a man who has attained his cultured ideal. A former colleague describes the breadth of Bland's interests as astonishing. 'He seems to have this huge desire to enjoy life to the full.'
And he clearly relishes his BBC role.
'It's is the best job in broadcasting,' he says. 'The BBC is a wonderful organisation. I am really proud of it. People always ask me how I am enjoying the job and I have to point out "enjoy" is not the right word. LWT was enjoyable - it was a small company, 700 staff, not too controversial, relatively straightforward. The BBC is 24,000 people, five national radio networks, two national television networks, 40 odd local and regional stations, BBC World, BBC Prime, the commercial arm, the licence fee. I mean, it's not always enjoyable, but it's interesting.'
One colleague suspects that Bland, who has always been financially focused, finds the non-commercial aspects of the BBC 'very frustrating'.
Another broadcaster suggests that Bland, after 'trying to run the governors like non-execs', has found an accommodation that works within the corporation.
What he brings to the organisation, though, is a keen eye for strategy - essential as it faces the digital revolution. And despite its sensitive situation, sitting on £2bn-worth of licence-payers' money with the detail of future funding still under review, the BBC now has as good a grasp on 'what comes next' as any organisation he has worked in, according to Bland. Look at the strength of the corporation on the internet. 'We are now the most popular factual site in Europe with 50-odd million hits in the last month. We are streaming radio on to it, the world service is going out on it, in five years' time television pictures will be good on the internet. It will be really powerful.'
But the thing he is proudest of, he says, clearly kicking into something of a rehearsed speech, is the quality of programmes the BBC has made in his three years as chairman. 'The BBC thinks about its audience in a very conscious way. It understands its audience's different interests. It is a strong performer in the ratings because of that, but it is not a ratings-driven organisation, and that is what I am proudest of. Look at Our Mutual Friend on television, or Troy on radio ...' Birt says that is one of the things everyone likes about Bland: he watches, he listens and he is a great 'celebrator' of what the BBC actually does.
Does he come under much political pressure over news coverage? At time of writing, there were murmurs of discontent with the BBC's coverage of the war in Serbia. Bland brushes the question aside.
'In a situation like this, the BBC is in the job of presenting the truth as it sees it, even when unpalatable. It may not be to the Government's liking.'
Has he ever intervened on political presentation?
Never summoned anyone to his office? He laughs.
'No, and they wouldn't come. At least, I hope they wouldn't.'
Never been leant on by a minister or spin doctor?
'They wouldn't ring me. At the operating level, of course, they try. But the BBC is very robust.'
That word again. Yet there is no doubt that Bland has acute antennae, and not just to political nuances. One characteristic of his LWT chairmanship was that, in a marketplace where the rules were constantly shifting, he always seemed one jump ahead of the game. Some of that stemmed from his ability to pump a network of important and well-placed people, including Carlton's Green. The two have been friends for more than a decade and appear to have worked to each other's benefit for as long. It is a friendship that intrigues many in the media - if only because they seem very different characters. (It's almost father-son, according to one.)
'Yes, I really admire him,' Bland says, 'and I do see quite a lot of him.' Green has bought a large house near Bland's 13th century chateau in France. 'It's bigge,r but not better, than mine,' jokes Bland. 'At least that's what I tell him.' The two of them, plus Max Hastings, editor of the London Evening Standard, run a regular dining circle where, says Bland, they gossip ferociously about the media. Hastings, another keen shooter, has yet to follow his friends to Gascony. 'Not enough things to kill there,' Bland quips slyly. At times, you would guess, it is a struggle for Bland to control that caustic wit.
He makes as many enemies as friends, apparently, but if you are a friend, he treats you well. One tells me how, after Bland earned his first million (when a printer he chaired, Sir Joseph Causton, was taken over), he lent a chunk of it to him interest-free for a bridging loan. Others receive similar largesse. But annoy him, and he will carry the grudge for years.
When I ask Bland about losing LWT to Gerry Robinson of Granada, he says it was the worst day of his business life. But it was clearly not Robinson who got his goat. In the end, the deal hinged on a decision made by Carol Galley at investor MAM.
She's not a close personal friend then? His beady eyes narrow.
'She is neither close, nor personal, nor a friend,' he says crisply.
Then he pauses, measuring what he should say, before adding that it was understandable - Galley took the decision because MAM had a larger shareholding in Granada, and anyway, she has done very well out of backing Robinson.
MAM carried the day in Granada's Forte bid, too.
Her and Gerry? 'Oh yes,' says Bland, sardonically, 'I am sure they are close personal friends.'
He just cannot resist it. But he clearly conducts himself with rather more care than in his LWT days. There he was famous for staring down stupid journalists and shouting 'Bollocks' at people like Dyke who dared to contradict him. 'Yes, there is much less bollocks at the BBC,' he says, with a wry grimace. 'When you are sitting under the stern gaze of Lord Reith, you wouldn't dare say things you might in other circumstances. I am also older now.'
Any regrets? No, but there are misconceptions about him that he would like to correct. He doesn't just have famous friends, as profilers always write. That's pretty offensive, but it goes with the territory, he guesses.
Yes, he likes entertaining. He married late (at 42), and his wife, formerly the Viscountess of Enfield, is a great organiser and party-thrower. And if some of his old friends think he has got rather grand - 'ask him when he last poured his own drink' laughs one - just as many will tell you that Bland cannot abide anyone with airs and graces, and has fallen out with as many important people as he has fallen in with.
But if he could change anything, he says, maybe it would be the LWT handcuff deal, with which he has been beaten over the head for most of the decade. It made him £7m-plus in personal profit.
'I regretted at the time that it was technically impossible to get the whole of LWT as shareholders in the venture. We agonised over it but we simply couldn't do it.' In the end the 50-odd executives who benefited so handsomely from the deal did cough up around £800,000 - Bland himself contributed £180,000 - which was distributed as a bonus to the rest of the staff.
Guilt? 'I don't think so. We just thought it was a nice thing to do. We had made more money than expected.'
What about staff morale at the BBC? Everyone always seems to be so miserable.
Couldn't he do something about that? He does his best to get round to staff breakfasts and the like, but many inside the organisation find him rather a remote figure.
He sighs. 'It is difficult to make people happy, but I know we should try harder.' Difficult, because when you shed 5,000 jobs and ask staff to work longer hours and become multiskilled, it's not a recipe for bliss.
'The environment is much more testing than it was when MacNeice and Dylan Thomas could head off to the pub for three hours and cook up Under Milk Wood,' he says. 'It's changed, and it won't become like that again.'
'You haven't asked me about NFC' - it pays half the costs of his BBC office, making him one of the organisation's cheaper chairmen (1998 salary £75,000) - 'or Leith's ...'
No time or space, I'm afraid. We admire his Gills. He says he is all 'Gilled-out' now, having bought every great engraving, bar one.
Retirement? He's secure at the BBC until 2003. By then he wants to have his new DG bedded in, and future funding secured. He is a passionate apostle for the licence fee, and never stops pointing out what good value the BBC is compared with Sky ( £325 for a basic package). Politicians realise the corporation's value, too, he says. Look at the role of the BBC in the Government's plans for continuing education. But there has to be more money. The corporation can't do it on cost-cutting alone.
He waves me off. Later, he rings and asks me to remove an inconsequential mention of Greg Dyke from the interview. He'd mentioned Dyke in a list of business figures he's admired, which included Green and Bob Ayling.
Everything's just got too sensitive.
Damn. So many favours. I was going to tell you Bland's take on Dyke shaving off his beard, but ...
BLAND IN A MINUTE
1938: Born 29 May. Educated in Ulster and at Sedburgh in Yorkshire and Queen's College, Oxford University
1956: Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards
1960: Irish Olympic Fencing Team
1967: Tory GLC councillor
1972: Deputy chairman IBA
1984: Chairman LWT
1994: Chairman NFC
1996: Chairman BBC.