`He must be good - he's not Birt'

Programme-makers hope the army of `suits' are for the axe, says Chris Horrie
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GREG DYKE'S appointment as The People's Director-General was greeted with something approaching jubilation by many programme-makers at the BBC. Partly, this is because Greg Dyke has the greatest possible qualification for any D-G, so far as many Beeb-folk are concerned. He is not Sir John Birt.

Birt did have his fans. The most notable were in Wapping, where The Times and The Sunday Times cheered on his every move. Thus the fact that The Times has been running a "Stop Dyke" campaign based around his famous pounds 50,000 donation to New Labour for several months counts heavily in his favour. Peter Stothard, the Dyke-baiting editor of The Times, once wrote a series of six consecutive leaders (an event unprecedented since the abdication crisis of the Thirties) calling for the BBC to be broken up and auctioned off. The old and reliable principle applies: My enemy's enemy is my friend.

Birt welcomed the so-called "multi-channel" future and, in many ways, re-fashioned the BBC in ways that helped Murdoch's Sky TV get off the ground, but Dyke will want to compete head-on. This is a source of cheer to many in the corporation, who hope he will bring to an end the "defeatism" which accepted that "the market" (ie Sky and ITV) would provide sport, movies, popular drama and light entertainment, and the BBC should concentrate more on news, current affairs, the arts and other less popular fare.

It is also widely believed Dyke will show the door to Birt's vast army of management consultants, middle-managers, political lobbyists and spin- doctors. When Birt built a huge separate office block to house the BBC's foreign programmes sales, Dyke was flabbergasted. "At LWT, I did the same job using a couple of assistants, a telephone and two rooms at the end of the corridor."

Dyke will look for deep cuts in production costs to find money for programmes. He has said the BBC is over-staffed and once, as an invited speaker at one of the BBC's think-tanks, told them to "hack and hack again" at staff numbers. He is also likely to divert some of the money Birt lavished on news and current affairs for a war chest to fight Sky over sports rights. Dyke's critics have been rattling poor old Roland Rat's bones to suggest he is in favour of "dumbing down", threatening to move the BBC from "quality programming" to chase ratings. BBC rank and file became demoralised under Birt partly because he accepted the elitist argument, relentlessly promoted by Murdoch's papers, that "quality television" meant unpopular or esoteric programmes.

This argument was never accepted by the BBC before the arrival of Birt. And it has never been accepted by Dyke. The idea is that "quality" is in the service as a whole, providing for the viewer every type of programme possible to see on television or hear on radio.

When Dyke took over from Birt as Director of Programmes at LWT in the mid-Eighties he switched money from lavishly funded (but little watched) current affairs and minority interest shows, and found extra cash by cutting costs to the bone. Dyke eased the blow of mass redundancies with generous redundancy and, in some cases, help in setting up independent businesses supplying LWT. This was handled with such skill that he emerged from the process more popular than ever.

Dyke used that cash to double the output of popular drama and buy live Premiership (then First Division) football. The result was a string of hit shows including Inspector Morse, The Darling Buds of May and London's Burning. This was exactly the sort of well-crafted popular but "decent" material the BBC had always been so good at producing - and which played so well with licence fee-payers. LWT/ITV soared in the ratings. Murdoch's newly launched Sky TV found it impossible to break into the market against such strong competition and came within an inch of going bust. Then Dyke quipped: "We are winning by out-BBC-ing the BBC." Now he gets his chance to re-BBC the BBC.

Chris Horrie is co-author of `Fuzzy Monsters, Fear and Loathing at the BBC', Heinemann, pounds 16.99.

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