BOOK REVIEW / The trouble with our Auntie: 'Fuzzy Monsters: Fear and Loathing at the BBC' - Chris Horrie and Steve Clarke: Heinemann, 16.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
WITH a previous co-writer (Peter Chippindale), Chris Horrie produced a gloriously unauthorised history of the Sun, called Stick It Up Your Punter] It was an unusual kind of non-fiction book: tabloid in style - punchy, punny, funny - but broadsheet in its stern attitude to ethics and news values.

Now, with a new partner, Horrie has played the trick again. Fuzzy Monsters is a scornful account of the Thatcher administration's attempt to break up the BBC and the willingness of John Birt - as the authors present it - to co-operate with this, in exchange for his own rise to the top.

This is a BBC2 / Newsnight sort of thesis - critical, broadly liberal - but the way in which the story is told is borrowed from a quite different kind of show: the ITV peak-time drama. You can almost hear the sinister pinging of the soundtrack each time John Birt enters: 'A deeply insecure and lonely man who thought everyone in the organisation was plotting either with him or against him.' If publishers could run 'trailers' in the way that television channels can, this one would be sold on the moment when the Controller of BBC1 grabs the Head Of News by the lapels and screams: 'You arsehole] Donald Duck]'

Without being psychologically false to the material, the book is full of atmospheric scenes and crackling speeches. There is the executive think-in at a country hotel, where Birt requires each executive to tell a joke or anecdote. Or Birt in a cost-cutting meeting, reportedly saying: 'You must stop thinking in negative terms. We must think positively and close this building down.'

Books and articles about the BBC always risk becoming a therapeutic spitoon, with disgruntled employees and former staff gleefully lining up to make their splash. Not avoiding this function, Fuzzy Monsters is constrained, rather like some television documentaries, by the availability of talking heads. The scenes involving departed executives such as Alasdair Milne, Michael Checkland and Jonathan Powell feel very well-briefed indeed. The sequences featuring Birt and Hussey, who declined to be interviewed, are more a patchwork of tip-offs and suppositions.

A 'Birtist' journalist's objection to this book - apart from the fact that it makes the inventor of 'Birtism' seem a sinister creep - would be that it is entirely negative. There is no attempt to suggest other ways in which the BBC might have been reformed or developed. The authors' implied alternatives to Checkland and Birt as Director-General - Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Grade and John Tusa - would all have made the staff considerably happier, and the corporation editorially more courageous, but might well have provoked the Conservatives in the 1980s to turn Television Centre in to a car park. The book is best at charting British power games: how a friendship or hostility can detonate 10 years later; the dollar pro quo by which the Murdoch agenda was applied to British television in exchange for his newspapers' support of the Tories; the way Birt's early courting of Whitehall paid off during his 1993 tax scandal.

Fuzzy Monsters is not crisply written. When Janet Street-Porter signs up Murdoch as speaker for the Edinburgh Television Festival, we are told: 'Delivering Murdoch was a feather in her cap, described as a 'coup' '. At first, I thought this was a joke about what Street-Porter's accent might make of 'cap', but it turns out to be merely lazy phrasing. This is, though, a fast-moving and very funny book, and Chris Horrie again demonstrates his ability to stick it up the media and to the punters.