This is a momentous year for the BBC. It must appoint a director general to succeed Birt and the Government must decide how much money the corporation will have in the years beyond 2001, on the basis of a report on funding from a committee chaired by the city economist Gavyn Davies.
Not in the corporation's entire history has a director general been so widely and publicly reviled. Last week, in a House of Lords debate initiated by Lord Bragg, peers queued up to attack the "croak-voiced Dalek" (Dennis Potter) and his "pseudo-Leninist managerial methods" (Michael Grade). Among the critics was Lord Hussey, who was chairman of the BBC from 1986 to 1996, during which time Birt became first deputy director general, then director general.
Hussey cited approvingly the opinion of Raymond Snoddy of The Times that "the BBC is drowning in policy options and perpetual revolution. Less money should be spent on all those areas not directly connected with programme-making", adding that he feared "for the future of radio against the monster television... I do not think that it [the BBC] has got its strategy right."
This portentous oration was heightened by the opaque anxieties expressed by Bragg himself and made melodramatic by the bloody dagger of Lady James, the crime writer and former BBC governor, who struck out against a management "too rigidly controlled, too bureaucratic, too secretive and too arrogant" and too inclined to communicate in "that curious bureaucratic jargon which bears little relation to the English language".
Some of this poison has its source in particular episodes. Hussey, whose wife is a member of the royal household, objected bitterly to the famous Panorama interview with Diana, Princess of Wales; Baroness James was of the anti-Birt party in 1992 when the governors plumped for him as DG by a single vote.
I, too, am familiar with the scene of the crime, having worked directly to Birt during Hussey's chairmanship in the late Eighties. In 1993 I published a pamphlet suggesting that by 2005 the BBC licence fee would face a crisis of legitimacy, as the corporation's share of the audience fell towards 30 per cent. I advocated a new form of non-profit, mutual ownership for the BBC, capable of more readily tapping diverse sources of income including public subsidy, advertising and subscription, and providing a firewall against the party political interference that nearly undid the BBC during the zenith of Margaret Thatcher's power.
Although I am sure the issue of funding and ownership of the BBC is not dead, it is clear that I was wrong about timing. But Birt's position now goes much further: that the licence fee is here to stay and should be increased. Having appointed Davies, the Government has in effect conceded the case, since Davies is on record with a detailed, if rather contorted argument that any sign of weakness in BBC audience share should be rewarded with more and more public money.
But the undeniable point is that John Birt is about to leave the BBC with a strong position in all the important new broadcasting technologies, and in its best financial and political shape for 20 years.
Birt's achievement arises from two formidable personal qualities: his ability to focus upon strategy, not detail, and to organise his own time and that of his central team to that purpose; and his political skills, honed in his days at LWT's Weekend World. Birt's style, as methodical in political socialising as in analysing the competition, propelled the BBC through the battlefield of Thatcherism and the nowhere land of John Major, and is about to be garlanded by New Labour.
When Lord Hussey says that Birt has the "wrong strategy" and should "concentrate on its mainstream channels and invest in them" (ie Test cricket not 24- hour news on radio and television), he succeeds only in tying himself in knots, since he still supports the BBC's expansion into digital TV channels and Radio 5 Live. In any case, the big money is still at the core; you could buy a year of television's News 24 and the whole of the BBC Internet service for less than the cost of Radio 3. The problem, which Hussey does not attempt to solve, is that a BBC which has only a quarter of UK television revenues cannot bid for sports contracts in the way it did six years ago when the ratio was very nearly one to one.
It is now plain that Birt has found the only strategy with any chance of sustaining the case for the licence fee into the next 10 or 20 years. By diversifying into new commercial ventures, he blocked the argument that the BBC is wasting the value of its archive; by going deep into digital television, he put the BBC is at the heart of a major technology switch and opened the way for themed BBC channels on news, arts, education, history and science as part of the rich mix that rewards the licence fee payer. Most remarkably of all, Birt saw early on that the Internet would become a primary distribution channel for TV and radio. Today, BBC Online runs the most visited Internet services in Europe. By comparison, ITV is nowhere.
The effect of these moves on the politics of the licence fee is fundamental. The case against the licence fee is that it is compulsory and unfair, and that its legitimacy diminishes with the BBC's audience share as alternative TV and radio channels multiply. In practice, the BBC has contained the drift in its market share, while broadening the basic case for the licence fee by showing that even in the age of communications plenty, people want services of a type and quality not served up by the market. Indeed, the rise of the Internet strengthens this point in other ways, because here is a medium beyond the reach of effective regulation; the only way that governments can intervene is to support investment in superior content.
Lord Hussey, paradoxically, conceded this point by noting: "when I arrived at the BBC I thought it had too much influence; I now think it has too little." This is precisely Birt's political masterstroke; politicians across all parties, bruised by Rupert Murdoch, want a big media player over which they have a different kind of influence, even though the BBC remains Britain's media giant. In short, New Labour is eating out of Sir John Birt's hand.
So why is Birt not acclaimed for this achievement? One reason is that the price of it has been to strip funds from existing BBC activities to help pay for the corporation's stake in the new media world. That has been painful for staff and has led to compromises on quality. But if the result is that the BBC is securely funded into the next decade, even the most scarred producer will eventually think the price fair.
The most difficult charge to answer is the claim that the BBC has become less creative, and makes fewer good programmes. There is certainly no evidence for this in the corporation's record of winning industry awards in the Nineties - it typically carries off more than three-quarters in every contest, and BBC executives can list their major documentary and drama achievements to counter justifiable sneering at The Vanessa Show.
The bottom line is that the audience figures are better than John Birt expected when he arrived at the BBC. He foresaw the TV audience share falling to 30 per cent, but in fact the BBC will see out millennium night with more than 40 per cent of the United Kingdom's TV viewing and an astonishing 43 per cent share of all viewing and listening. Again, ITV has done much worse: its audience share diminished from 41 to 32 per cent between 1993 and 1998. For Birt's critics, the most unpalatable truth is that it is his loathed and parodied management style which lies at the very heart of his achievement. When he (and I) arrived at Broadcasting House in the mid-Eighties, he found a constellation of committees and fiefdoms disconnected from the director general's office and even its board of management. It was a honeycomb with no queen bee. These arrangements may have been workable and perhaps even defensible in an era of abundant cash, when the BBC dominated British broadcasting. But by the mid-Eighties that era had closed. The fact that ITV persisted with a loose, ungainly federation explains many of its recent failures.
Today, Birt's central management team is well resourced (it accounts for 3.4 per cent of BBC expenditure, not out of line with big private sector corporations) and capable of delivering strategic analysis and results at impressive speed. Novelists may not like the language, but that's the way they talk in business schools and board rooms.
Birt's weakness is not his strategy, or his management philosophy, but the fact that he is a poor communicator - even those who work closely with him can feel cut off and demotivated, and most staff simply feel they do not know him.
At close proximity Birt is funny, clever, loyal and down-to-earth - but none of this is visible through the matrix of critical path analysis and programme cost per hour calibrations. Like John Reith, Birt is an engineer who tends to assume that everyone else has a brain like his own. He has none of Michael Grade's big showbiz talk or John Tusa's heroic gesture - but he's a much more skilled operator than either.
It is perhaps a sign of his weakness with people that there is no obvious heir apparent within the corporation. But whoever gets the job will thank his or her predecessor for a position of strength unimaginable 10 years ago.
The least the new boss can do is to commission a decent artist to paint the outgoing DG - I suggest David Hockney - and to hang the portrait on the wall of the Council Chamber opposite that of John Reith. Let the two engineers stare at each other for half a century, because neither was loved at the moment of his greatest achievement.
The writer is professor of journalism at Cardiff UniversityReuse content