Birt's BBC is 'run by fear': Veteran reporter mounts spectacular attack on his Director-General

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The Independent Online
MARK TULLY, the award-winning BBC foreign correspondent, will this week accuse his Director- General, John Birt, of turning the Corporation into a secretive monolith with poor ratings for its programmes and a demoralised, fearful staff.

In a speech to be delivered to the Radio Academy in Birmingham on Tuesday, Mr Tully says that in the BBC today 'there is a very real sense of fear among the staff which prevents them speaking their minds'. This fear has put 'a high premium on sycophancy and virtually rules out healthy criticism of the management'.

The attack, which comes from one of the BBC's most respected journalists and runs to 6,000 words, is among the most sweeping to be made on the changes under way at the BBC. 'As someone who has worked for the Corporation for nearly 30 years,' says Mr Tully, 'I don't think he (Mr Birt) understands what the BBC was, or what it should become.'

The timing is difficult for Mr Birt. Figures last week showed BBC1's audience share at its lowest for almost a decade and brought a chorus of criticism of the Corporation's failure to make popular programmes. In the Independent on Sunday today, Bill Cotton, a former BBC1 Controller, says the BBC is making a 'colossal mistake' in neglecting light entertainment.

Mr Tully says that Mr Birt has given priority to cost-cutting and structural change without having any strategy for programmes. 'The licence-payer is also entitled to ask whether the new money has been spent as he or she would like it to be. The ratings don't seem to indicate that they are very happy . . . the old management, accused of middle-class bias, produced EastEnders, the revolutionaries Eldorado.'

Of Mr Birt's style of management he says: 'The phrase Stalinist has been used . . . I would not go that far, but so many managers parrot his name that many of the staff feel there is some sort of Big Brother watching them.' Personality and too much power in one person's hands always weaken organisations, he says. 'In the Corporation today there are too many managers who appear to be saying that John Birt is the BBC and the BBC is John Birt . . . I can't help feeling he has only himself to blame.'

Mr Birt became Director-General last January after five years as deputy and has spent much of the time since then under fire over his reforms - notably the 'producer choice' scheme for an internal market in the BBC - as well as over his management style and the special tax arrangements he enjoyed on his appointment. He formally joined the Corporation's staff only a few weeks ago, having previously held his post as a freelance consultant.

Unlike most of Mr Birt's public critics, Mark Tully still works for the BBC and is still based in India, where he established his reputation over 30 years. He was awarded the OBE for his services to broadcasting in 1985 and has also won the Dimbleby Award and an honour from the Indian government, the Padma Shri, rarely accorded to non-Indians.

He recently left the BBC staff to negotiate a new contract which would allow him more time to make longer programmes, but says his negotiations with the BBC have been marked by confusion, delays and hostile leaks, none of them of his making. He denies, however, that this is the cause of his attack on Mr Birt, saying that he still hopes to get the contract, which would leave him better off.

He says he was prompted to speak out by reading a letter to the Times from six leading BBC journalists which accused Mr Birt's critics within the Corporation of being too cowardly to give their names. Noting that the writers, who included Martyn Lewis, Peter Jay and John Simpson, were among his highest-paid colleagues, Mr Tully says: 'I leave you to judge how much courage it took to write that letter.'

He derides claims by Mr Birt that he wants more openness. 'I always thought that the BBC was a remarkably open organisation. Jobs were openly competed for, in fact John Birt is the first Director- General since Charles Curran (in 1969) to get the job without an appointments board.'

Mr Birt is expected to reply to Mr Tully's attack on Wednesday in another speech at the Radio Academy. Sources inside the BBC say he will seek to deflect the criticism by portraying his critics as 'old soldiers polishing their campaign medals' who have an unrealistic view of the challenges facing the Corporation. Change, his speech will say, 'always causes unhappiness'.

How much unhappiness there is inside the BBC will emerge in the coming weeks, when the results of an extensive survey of staff opinion are made public.

The fading light, page 3

(Photographs omitted)

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