Birt's shake-up hits a wall of protest

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The Independent Online
John Birt yesterday ran into a wall of political opposition to his plans to restructure the BBC, with accusations that he was trying to privatise chunks of the corporation "by the back door".

The BBC's controversial Director-General confirmed an article in yesterday's Independent that the corporation planned to spin off its resources arm into a separate, wholly owned subsidiary. But he vehemently denied the move would lead to the privatisation of BBC Resources.

"There is work in progress to see how Resources could be helped to trade more effectively in the external market, where it is already active, and to raise capital for future investment," the BBC said in a statement.

A spokesman added that creating a separate subsidiary to contain BBC Resources, which groups the corporation's studios, editing suites and other basic facilities, was not inconsistent with the BBC's mandate as a public- service broadcaster.

Mr Birt, speaking on Today, on Radio 4, insisted there were no plans to privatise any part of the BBC. His assurances were rejected by Bectu, which represents BBC Resources' 9,000 staff. "This is a prelude to full privatisation of the BBC," Gerry Morrissey, supervisor of broadcasting at Bectu, said. "We will vehemently oppose any attempts by the BBC to split up and sell off any part of the corporation."

Jack Cunningham, Labour's spokesman for national heritage, said: "Fundamental changes of the kind proposed by Mr Birt should have been part of the debate before the BBC's new Charter was renewed by Parliament." He added that Mr Birt's aggressive campaign for an increase in the licence fee was "inappropriate against a background of proposals for change which do not enjoy public and political confidence".

Alex Carlisle, home affairs spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, said: "The integrity of the BBC as a public-service broadcaster must be maintained. The proposals as they have appeared imply a back-door privatisation of the BBC."

The harsh words marked an escalation in the political opposition to Mr Birt's stewardship of the BBC, which has included a commitment to the commercialisation of the service as well as a radical management shake- up that critics claim could ruin the World Service.

Gerald Kaufman, the chairman of the Commons Select Committee on National Heritage, and himself a proponent of a more commercial BBC, was none the less highly critical of the current management.

"The BBC belongs to the Government. It is funded by the tax-payer, and operates by Royal Charter," he said. "The people who run it have no right to reconstruct it." The BBC should halt all changes immediately, and await a session of the select committee in the autumn for a full debate.

Mr Birt has been sharply criticised for introducing radical changes without adequately consulting with staff.

Mr Morrissey warned that the commercial changes proposed for BBC Resources would only be the beginning. "This cannot be seen in isolation from the decision to separate Production from Commissioning [under the management restructuring]. Production will inevitably follow the same pattern as Resources did four years ago. This led to massive job losses."

The BBC said it was far too early to say where job cuts might come in the current efficiency drive. It declined to comment on speculation that as many as 2,000 jobs in BBC Production would go.

The BBC has already announced that it will privatise BBC Transmission, which could fetch up to pounds 250m to help fund future growth.

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