Media: Analysis - Service and sacrifices in Birt's brave new world

YOU HAVE got to hand it to Sir John Birt. He knows exactly when to strike: just when everyone least expects it, and just when they can do little or nothing about it.

Last week, he ousted Sam Younger, the managing director of the World Service, in a classic move. It was presented as an amicable decision by Younger, and yet everyone knew he had been pushed aside by the BBC top brass. Maximum secrecy was in evidence, a replacement lined up, the corporate press managers were ready to spring into action with the approved spin.

The publication of Ariel, the staff magazine, was delayed for several hours until the deed was done, and another story, the appointment of Matthew Bannister as new head of BBC Production, was timed to draw away much of the attention.

Sir John is a man with an engineer's obsession for tidiness and order, and the World Service is not that sort of organisation; it is full of eccentric, extraordinary minds with a will of their own.

John Tusa, Sam Younger's high-profile predecessor at Bush House, regarded Birt with ill-concealed contempt, and when he was plain John Birt, Deputy Director-General, Tusa gave him a "hands off Bush House" warning that has never been forgotten or forgiven.

Sam Younger, through no fault of his own, is a victim of both the Birt- Tusa feud, and Birt's obsession with tidy structures.

In the aftermath of the shock restructuring of World Service, in June 1996, Younger was publicly assailed by Tusa, and many World Service staffers, for failing to resign on a matter of principle.

Younger had not been consulted about the changes, nor even told about them until the very last moment, and it is a widely held and plausible view that Birt banked on Younger falling on his sword, allowing him to be immediately replaced by someone more in the DG's own image.

A kindly and approachable manager, Younger stayed on and worked diligently to make the restructuring work, and managing to repair much of the damage done to relations with his staff. He demonstrated his modernising credentials by overseeing the recently announced rebranding of the World Service, and proposals for a news and current affairs channel, World Service Two.

If there were any criticism of him, it was that he needed to be tougher. And at the Corporate Centre, his attempts to convey the unique spirit of World Service fell on unsympathetic ears. We can, therefore, assume that this failure to demonstrate the required toughness, and to wholeheartedly embrace the Birt Philosophy, was ultimately his undoing. To survive as a Birt lieutenant, it is necessary to be, and to be seen to be, a true believer.

Younger's successor, Mark Byford, 40, is by all accounts, a talented broadcast manager - described by some as the acceptable face of Birtism - but challenging times lie ahead. He has arrived from his job as director of English regional broadcasting to discover that his ousted predecessor has already left his office and will not, as the BBC press release declared, "be leaving the BBC towards the end of the year". He also finds himself in the midst of a group of shocked and demoralised journalists and broadcasters from all points of the globe.

Among other things, Byford inherits an explosive issue: plans to reduce the number of foreign language services - there are currently 43 - to fund other aspects of the World Service operation.

To the majority of the 2,500 staff in Bush House, the BBC is not any old broadcaster. It is a shining light in a dark world, to be nurtured and loved. They cannot understand why something that even Lady Thatcher admired as a national asset should be so relentless hammered from within.

No sensible person would deny that, in the days when the BBC World Service was known as External Services, it was a complacent, often arrogant, organisation.

It, and the rest of the BBC, probably needed Birt, or a Birt-like figure, to rattle the cages - but five years of this would have been more than enough.

Ian Richardson is a former senior journalist and manager with BBC World Service radio and television. He now runs Richardson Media, writing and lecturing on media-related issues

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project