Birt's revolution: snap, crackle, but will it pop? The Independent Archive: 7 September 1988

Maggie Brown assesses John Birt's progress a year into his crusade to reform the journalistic output of the BBC
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MONDAY MORNING on the seventh floor of Television Centre, home of BBC news and current affairs. It feels like the beginning of a new school term.

Two of the BBC's most prestigious recruits are starting work: the columnist Polly Toynbee has been wooed from The Guardian to become the corporation's first social affairs editor, while Daniel Jeffreys, former chief economist of the stockbrokers Cazenove, has stepped off the City's golden escalator to become, at 32, editor of a new economics and business unit.

The tall, narrow building throbs continuously with drilling noise, as builders prepare the rooms, between Newsnight and Breakfast Time, which will house three new specialist groups of reporters. These experts, recruited in a summer-long flurry of appointment boards, are expected to play a crucial on-screen role in the corporation's future bid to provide a more informed radio and television output on foreign affairs, social policy, business and politics.

"Everywhere you go, the change is starting to be apparent," enthuses the news and current affairs controller Ian Hargreaves, 37, who was recruited from the Financial Times nine months ago and has played a key role in spotting outside talent, and advancing others from within. "We are still at the beginning of things, but there is the change, on air."

One year ago, John Birt started out on his controversial and ambitious five-year crusade to reform the BBC's journalistic output. The former London Weekend Television executive who rose to power as deputy Director-General of the BBC found little to admire in the corporation's output and far too few serious specialists on its staff. Daily news programmes and more leisurely current affairs were finally merged into one coherent operation. A cadre of youngish executives, a news and current affairs directorate, was set up to manage and monitor BBC journalists, and their output. An extra pounds 62m for news and current affairs (to be spent over five years) was squeezed out of a contracting corporation.

The problem in assessing the state of the Birt changes up until now has been the scanty programming to show for all the missionary zeal. The Nine O'Clock News has found a new affection for graphs, and, in recent weeks, an able Northern Ireland correspondent. Newsnight has a tougher edge. Each BBC news programme has its own editor, an influx of outside recruits are editing key current affairs programmes. And, from this autumn, television correspondents will be able to discuss with Tim Orchard, the recently appointed "in-take editor", where to direct a story idea or feature from the Nine O'Clock News to Panorama.

John Birt remains the key theorist, the presiding spirit of BBC news and current affairs. But, last July, he voluntarily handed all day-to- day control to his deputy the BBC news stalwart Ron Neil.

Birt's new distance from executive control of news and current affairs does not seem to signal a reversal or retreat from the values he wishes to implant of "accuracy, impartiality and fair-mindedness", for these are adhered to with equal zeal by Neil and his directorate recruits. Birt is a relentlessly determined man devoted to creating administrative systems as a bulwark against human failings. He says: "The changes in the output will take a long time to work through." The bitter opposition to Birt has abated to some extent: there is relief at the firm way in which political attacks have been handled. "There is still a lot of cynicism about, but I don't think it will stop anything. And nor should it," says one senior BBC Television newsman.

One long-term test of Birtism at the BBC will be whether its output rises above and beyond decent competence. "At its best, journalism should crackle and sizzle with discovery," said John Birt in his Royal Television Society lecture "Decent Media". Ian Hargreaves picks up the theme: "We think the introduction of new people, a new way of doing things will inject that crackle. If it doesn't we have failed."

From the Media page of `The Independent', Wednesday 7 September 1988