Media: Victory for presenters as Birt backs down

Changes planned for the BBC's news programmes have been delayed after a torrent of protest by presenters and editors. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, reports on John Birt's first big U-turn after years of pushing through reforms
John Birt and Tony Hall, the BBC's most senior managers, have backed away from a fight with top newsreaders and editors after the chairman of the BBC governors expressed alarm at the weight of opposition to their plans to change the corporation's news operation.

Sir Christopher Bland, chairman of the BBC governors, called Mr Birt, director-general of the BBC and Mr Hall, head of the BBC news directorate, into an urgent meeting yesterday after which it was announced that the deadline for the implementation of a merger of news services had been delayed by six weeks.

Those opposing the changes, who included James Naughtie and John Humphrys from the Today Programme, Anna Ford from the Six O'Clock News and Jeremy Paxman from Newsnight, are known to believe the move indicates a significant concession.

"I don't see how Bland can haul Tony and Birt in and not do anything about it," said one senior presenter. "If Bland and the governors are going to help in producing something that Tony Hall and his staff can live with it's one of the best bits of news the BBC's had in years.

"We will now go into constructive negotiations with them. The sticking point is still editorial independence for programmes."

The focus of the revolt will now turn to the BBC's board of governors, which includes members of the great and the good such as Bill Jordan, the former union leader, and Sir Richard Eyre, director of the National Theatre.

In the past the board has rubber-stamped changes proposed by Birt, but BBC insiders believe the size of the rebellion leaves them with little choice but to look for a compromise.

"The bottom line is that they know they cannot implement the changes because the crucial jobs will not be filled," said another senior source. "Or if they are filled, it will be by people who will not have the seniority or respect of their staff."

The changes planned involve the creation of five "super-editors" to run all news programmes, but none of the BBC's current senior editors is willing to apply for the jobs.

"I don't think we will see this drag out six weeks," said one senior editor last night. "There has already been a lot of talking today."

It is being suggested inside the building that the proposal to merge the production of news programmes under five editors is the idea of news chief Tony Hall and that John Birt has no appetite for a battle with his most famous radio and television stars.

The BBC management's rapid climbdown yesterday meant that editors were still being told at their morning meeting that they must calm their staff and apply for the new jobs by the end of the weekend as Sir Christopher was ordering the climbdown.

Mr Hall was forced to cancel a lunch with journalists at the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge where he was due to be grilled about the revolt.

Mr Hall told the One O'Clock News: "I think that we might need more time for consultation and I am quite happy to give people that time."

Earlier on Radio 4's Today programme James Naughtie had to bow out of interviewing Mr Hall because he was a signatory to a letter protesting about the changes that had been sent to Mr Hall on Wednesday.

The pressure on the BBC increased yesterday when Gerald Kaufman MP, chair of the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee, joined other politicians in condemning the changes: "The BBC is a shambles, it is extraordinarily badly run and it needs a complete upheaval in the way it is run."

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