It was Birt and it hurt

In the 10 years since he arrived, John Birt has dragged the BBC into a new era; some see it as the new dark ages, others as the brightest future available. Here he tells the Independent's media editor, Rob Brown, how it was for him
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It was a shock to the system to have an ITV man come into the BBC at that sort of level. I was the Protestant made Pope." John Birt can now look back rather lightheartedly to what many others would regard as one of the grimmest turning points in the history of the British Broadcasting Corporation. It is almost a decade to the day since he received the call from the BBC's Director General, Michael Checkland, inviting him to leave his top programming perch at London Weekend Television and become his number two.

The Birt Revolution began two months later in news and current affairs. As deputy DG, Birt was effectively the BBC's editor-in-chief, hired principally to shake up a politically sensitive sphere of programming which was loathed by the Thatcher-Tebbit axis and, consequently, a source of recurring tensions within the corporation.

This proddie-turned-pontiff didn't just take charge of the broadcasting equivalent of the Vatican. He told the assembled cardinals that their sermons were biased, monotonous and ill-informed. And, by the way, that Sistine chapel isn't as bleeding' impressive as you think it is!

Britain's most powerful broadcaster won't be receiving many cards from his staff wishing him a happy 10th Birtday. Many of those who toil under him will regard the fact that he will bow from the BBC in the year 2000 as the best reason for celebrating the millennium.

Almost as soon as Birt arrived a new adjective, Birtian, coined by contemptuous critics, entered the language. Ever since it has almost always been used in an abusive context, having been coined by contemptuous critics of his radical reforms. For some it was synonymous with Thatcherite, denoting a dictatorial style of leadership, a brutal approach to man management and a callous commitment to cost-cutting .

But the suggestion that Birt's way of saving the BBC from abolition was by buttering up the Thatcher government is one that the 52-year-old Liverpudlian would deeply resent. "We certainly didn't solve our problems by being soft on the government," he says. "We chronicled the recession in the late 1980s and the difficulties in the NHS. That wasn't popular with the government but we did it with self-confidence because we had people like Peter Jay and Polly Toynbee working for us."

Be that as it may, the demonisation of John Birt has intensified since December 1992 when he succeeded Checkland as DG. Undeterred by the wails of anger and outrage from veteran journalists such as Mark Tully and John Tusa, he has extended his revolution to every nook and cranny of this pounds 2bn organisation.

What we have to understand about the so-called Birt Revolution, according to Birt, is this: "Most of what's happened in the BBC over the last 10 years was going to happen anyway. Obviously individuals do affect events. Things happen perhaps at a different pace, one route taken is slightly different from other possible routes, but the generality of what's happened to the BBC over the last decade is not much different from what's happened to a whole succession of British institutions in both the public and private sectors.

So why all the bad press over the years? "The BBC must have the highest density of creative people in Britain. Although they don't feel any more discomfort than people in other institutions undergoing change, creative people are jolly good at expressing it in a vivid and effective way. And they have readier access to the media than other people going through exactly the same sort of problems."

Birt still generally gets a bad press. The last major profile of him - published in the Mail on Sunday's Night & Day last month - portrayed him as "the remote controller" and "the most feared man in television". The only publication to hail him as any sort of national hero was Management Today, which ran a highly complimentary cover story at the end of last year. "Bravo for the bean counter" proclaimed the headline. The proceeding six pages then explained to its pin-stripped readership: Why Birt is best for the Beeb.

Since becoming DG, it noted approvingly, Birt had cut the unit cost of programming making by 19 per cent and is now seeking a further 15 per cent reduction in costs over five years. This has been achieved by slashing the payroll by 10,000 and through three wholesale restructurings in the last decade.

Evidently, BBC employees have found these changes traumatic. A survey late last year found that 97 per cent were unhappy about the way the BBC was being managed; 89 per cent felt insecure in their jobs and 92 per cent feared that Birt's plans would lead to the break-up of the BBC.

Birt later shrugged off these findings, claiming that the survey was confined to just 4,000 trade union members ("a minority of a minority"). So, after 10 years in the top echelons of the BBC, is he saying that it has no morale problem?

"There are always tensions here," he replies. "Internal tensions. Differences between people. But during my time here I've always had a sense of an institution moving forward. No organisation can achieve the scale of change we've achieved unless literally thousands of people are working with you to bring it about."

Auntie is certainly riding high again in the ratings, with even its long- troubled drama department attracting both plaudits and unprecedented audience shares. "We've always believed that what we were doing was for the greater glory of the BBC," says Birt. "And we feel we've succeeded."

At this point he slips into a summary of the keynote lecture he delivered at last year's Edinburgh International Television Festival in which he waxed lyrical about "a BBC on song, at the top of our form". The lecture, entitled "The Glorious Future" has since been updated in his memory bank to include the BBC's recently unveiled strategy for succeeding in the multi-channel, digital TV revolution which he sums up as "spot on".

Others would contend that Auntie has been transmitting conflicting signals on this front lately. One day BBC strategists are warning apocalyptically that Rupert Murdoch could bury the BBC by abusing his dominance of digital technology to steer viewers towards his own Sky TV channels. Then, lo and behold, the BBC has teamed up with British Digital Broadcasting, the new digital terrestrial behemoth created by BSkyB in collaboration with Carlton and Granada.

Once again, Birt has a detailed answer. "For the last couple of years people have time and again said to us, on a whole range of issues: don't do this because it will help Rupert Murdoch or do this because it will hinder Rupert Murdoch. We've always said the same thing: our job is to serve the interests of the licence fee payer. We've done that by having a very clear view of how we want to move the BBC forward. Most importantly, we recognised that we need to distribute the BBC's services on all the new digital delivery systems - on satellite, cable and, when it finally comes, on telecom. Our licence fee-payers are going to be subscribing to some of these systems. We must reach them with this new generation of BBC services."

He claims to have been "very influenced" by what happened to ITV when it failed to put its own house in order - its 15 regional franchises were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

"At the time I concluded this shouldn't happen to the BBC. We had to get ahead of the game, be really clever about our purpose and be able to articulate how we could justify our public funds and why Britain still needed the BBC despite entering the world of plenty."

Birt believes that the BBC had "a bit of luck" when David Mellor went to the Department of National Heritage and as Britain's first "Minister for Fun" played a key role in deciding its fate. "He supported the vision and fought for it." Many of Birt's former colleagues in the top ranks of ITV also struck it lucky during the aforementioned franchise auction round when they received 18-carat golden handcuffs to stop them defecting to rival bidders. Greg Dyke netted pounds 9m as head of LWT, a post to which his old chum John Birt might well have been elevated had he stayed in the commercial sector. At the 1994 Edinburgh TV Festival - in which he was parodied as a "croak-voiced Dalek" by the playwright Dennis Potter - Birt later joked that he had forsaken pounds 9m in exchange for national vilification.

The truth, as Birt acknowledges, is he never knew he was turning his back on such a sum by switching over to the BBC. "But I did have share options which were pretty valuable, and I had to give them up," he swiftly adds. "That was the moment of truth: did I want to have a lot of money or did I want to become Deputy Director General? Actually I barely paused for thought and I have never regretted it.

"Being Director General of the BBC is not only a job at the top of the industry in which I have spent my whole working life but it is one of the most privileged positions to hold in the whole of British society. It is an honour to be leading not only the nation's but the world's largest cultural institution.

"I've never regretted for a moment coming. I've found it far and away the most satisfying and, dare I say, enjoyable, part of my life. I'm not saying I've never cursed but, taken as a whole, it's been an absolutely exhilarating, thrilling experience"n

Ten turbulent years

February 1987 John Birt, director of programmes at London Weekend Television, offered post of deputy director of BBC, in charge of news and current affairs

July 1987 Birt announces plans for new united News and Current Affairs directorate

April 1988 Licence fee linked to RPI

January 1991 15 (later 16) task forces set up to assess range of BBC activity

April 1991 BBC takes over licence fee collection from the Home Office

March 1991 First broadcast of BBC World Service TV

October 1991 Plans for Producer Choice, establishing an internal market in programme-making, are announced

November 1992 Government publishes Green Paper on BBC's future. Two days later, BBC makes its first contribution to debate by publishing `Extending Choice', a document that commits the corporation to four main goals: original quality programmes; openness and accountability to licence-fee payers; value for money; and an effective BBC

December 1992 Birt becomes Director- General

January 1993 A separate Resources, Engineering and Services directorate is created

February 1993 `Independent on Sunday' reveals that Birt has remained a freelance for tax reasons, forcing the BBC's boss to join its staff

April 1993 Producer Choice becomes operative on April Fools' Day - a timing not without significance, according to its numerous critics

March 1994 Radio 5 Live launched

May 1994 BBC Worldwide formed and link established with Pearson plc

July 1994 BBC's charter renewed, a move proclaimed as a victory for Birt's revolution

February 1995 Results from BBC's biggest audience research project for both radio and TV are published

April 1996 Sir Christopher Bland becomes chairman and begins by giving Birt a further five-year contract

May 1996 `Extending Choice in the Digital Age' published

June 1996 Major restructuring of BBC management announced to deal with digital revolution

August 1996 Birt uses keynote address to Edinburgh International TV Festival to call for an increase in licence fee to cope with digital revolution

October 1996 Government announces five-year licence deal, seen as partial victory for Birt

January 1997 BBC teams up with British Digital Broadcasting, a consortium comprising Carlton, Granada and BSkyB

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