Media Headliner: GMTV's ego-free zone has credibility at his core

Industry figures say it was no surprise to see Paul Corley apologise on air for GMTV's phone-in scandal.

A television boss appears on his own channel to hold up his hands and take the blame. Surely a classic real-life example of the sort of scenario you would expect to come across in the "Scenes You Seldom See" series of cartoons in Private Eye.

Perhaps not quite, though. In the latest phone-in scandal to hit television, although Paul Corley, the managing director of GMTV, was more than willing to admit that the buck tended to stop with him, he also pointed out that he had been as much in the dark as anyone - he had no knowledge of the fact that viewers responding to a phone-in quiz were being cheated. He was as shocked and surprised as anyone when he discovered what was going on.

There he was, last Tuesday morning, wearing a hair shirt, on screen for all to see. He apologised, that was the main thing. And he promised to reimburse all the GMTV phone contestants who'd been defrauded. It was a gesture that impressed many in the media industry, not least the ad community.

Mick Desmond, the chairman of Channel Television and a former colleague, says he was not the least bit surprised to see Corley reacting so quickly and positively.

"With Paul, what you see is what you get. He is very direct, he's open and always helpful. The rare thing ***(for a senior television executive) is that he genuinely hasn't got an ego. It's not about the big 'I am' all the time. He's well-liked in the business," Desmond says.

He's also a rarity in another way. Those who reach the top in broadcasting, on the commercial side, at least, tend to be renegade caterers, accountants from state-owned steelworks or marketers of margarine. Corley is a man with a genuine programme-making background.

And it's perhaps appropriate too, that as a producer he comes from the "skateboarding duck" generation, having cut his creative teeth on Nationwide, the BBC's regional current affairs show that dominated early evening schedules in the 70s and early 80s.

You'd be pushed to argue that this was the YouTube of its era; yet it provided perfect training for those aspiring to be the director- general of the BBC (Mark Thompson was one of Corley's fellow producers) or the boss of GMTV.

It's true that Corley, who was born in 1951, spent a couple of years on the wild side - in 1982, he moved to Newcastle to produce the first two series of The Tube, the revolutionary music show presented by Jools Holland and Paula Yates.

But taken in the round, his oeuvre is unapologetically mainstream, with credits (while at Carlton then the ITV Network Centre) including Airline, Police Camera Action, Hollywood Women and Neighbours from Hell. He also oversaw ITV's coverage of the 1997 General Election that brought Tony Blair to power and the extraordinary period of national mourning in the aftermath of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales later that year.

His CV also includes a couple of spells in the homely environment of Border Television - latterly, in the late 90s, as the managing director. Unimpeachable credentials, one would have to argue, for a future architect of the fluffy world that is GMTV.

Make that predominantly fluffy. There is, apparently, the odd outbreak of back-biting behind the scenes. Corley's standing as a public figure rose immeasurably, more by luck than judgment, when the presenter Eamonn Holmes (who, astonishingly, started to feel uncomfortable about his growing suspicion that GMTV wasn't about cutting-edge journalism) made a couple of catty remarks about his boss.

Holmes said he suspected the blood drained out of Corley's face when he (Holmes) handed him his resignation - but it was hard to tell because he's so fair-skinned. Nice one, Eamonn.

But some critics have detected similar levels of inscrutability in Corley's recent performance. They point out that the first phone-in scandal broke on 19 February, with revelations about the Richard & Judy show on Channel 4.

One by one, the major channels admitted they had also uncovered problems. You didn't have to have a degree in history from Oxford (which Corley has) to suspect that GMTV would also prove to have skeletons in its own closet. Corley pleads in mitigation that he hired an auditing company to check this out and received reassurances that GMTV was clean. He was astonished when an edition of the BBC's Panorama programme proved otherwise.

Critics say if researchers on Panorama can uncover this sort of stuff with a few phone calls of their own, why couldn't the GMTV auditors? Or, indeed, Corley himself?

But he's made his gesture - and he's sacked the outsourced phone company involved (Opera Interactive Services). So, while Corley keeps GMTV punching above its weight, he'll continue to be given the benefit of the doubt from the ad community. And it's an unlikely success story when you consider how reckless GMTV was in acquiring the licence - paying way over the odds to oust TV-am in 1993. It took a critical mauling in the early days, with the chattering classes finding it badly wanting, especially when set alongside the Chris Evans era Big Breakfast on Channel 4.

Almost miraculously, it seems, as ITV has absorbed the GMTV stakes held by the founder shareholders Guardian Media Group and Scottish Television (Disney, on 25 per cent, is the only non-ITV founder left), it has managed to resist being swallowed up by its majority shareholder.

That, some observers say, is a testament to the unparalleled programming, marketing and sales expertise it has built up and maintained over the years. And long may it continue.

As Chris Hayward, the broadcast director at ZenithOptimedia, puts it: "It's an incredibly professional organisation that markets itself astutely and knows its audience inside out. Over the past three or four years, its revenue performance has been remarkable - it takes tens of millions more than you'd expect. I think what Corley did was yet another example of how seriously GMTV takes its credibility."

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