Greg Dyke on Broadcasting

Birt didn't offer any solutions - so why give the MacTaggart lecture?
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The Independent Online

Journalists had suggested in advance that the BBC's former director general, now Tony Blair's "blue sky thinker", would use the lecture to take his revenge on those who had criticised him over the years and explain why the licence fee should be used to fund more than just the BBC. In the end, he did neither.

Instead, he used the lecture firstly to tell the audience what he had achieved as a programme maker and television executive in his many years at Granada and LWT, secondly to give a relatively upbeat assessment of the state of television programme today and thirdly to warn the industry that public service broadcasting was in danger because of new technology.

Among the news journalists, it was widely regarded as "one of the most boring MacTaggarts ever", but that was largely because there was no obvious news line. The reporters had come hoping for blood and didn't get it. Instead, they got Birt in a reflective mood.

So why did John decide to take up the invitation to deliver the lecture? My take is that he was trying to change what he believes is his mistaken image in the television industry. He wanted to explain to a new generation of programme makers that he wasn't really a "croak voiced dalek" as Dennis Potter had described him in the same lecture 12 years earlier, nor had he been only a television executive in his life. He clearly wanted everyone to know that he had once been a profound programme maker and that the high point of his career had been when he produced David Frost's exclusive interviews with former US president Richard Nixon.

Having worked with John on and off for nearly 30 years, I found his account of his life in television interesting, but many in the audience whom I talked to afterwards disagreed. They thought there was too much self justification and self aggrandisement. One merchant banker who was at Edinburgh for the first time said "It's a long time since I've seen someone say so many positive things about himself in front of so many people" and an experienced programme maker said "it was like listening to Forrest Gump with John placing himself at so many seminal moments in history".

I am not sure those views are entirely fair. It was a better lecture than many of the MacTaggarts I have listened to at Edinburgh. It was intellectually coherent - which one can't say of some - made a strong defence of programme making today and rightly confronted the dumbing down argument. But in the end, the lecture was fatally flawed, it was a lecture by John Birt which was curiously non-Birtist.

Those of us brought up in the LWT current affairs tradition, which was pioneered by John, were taught that it wasn't enough to simply point out problems in current affairs programmes, it was also vital to seek possible solutions. And yet John offered no possible solutions to the problems he outlined in the lecture.

He didn't tell us how he wanted the governance system of the BBC changed, even though he was critical of how it had operated over the years. He didn't tell us if he wanted top slicing of the licence fee to help fund public service programming on Channel Four, although he implied the channel could be in real financial problems in the new world. And, most seriously of all, he didn't attempt to tell us how to cope with the dramatic technological developments which he outlined and said would change the lives of all in the television industry in the next decade. He warned that television on demand via broadband would transform the industry but offered no suggestions on how to cope with it.

This was unlike John Birt, a man who is normally only too keen to offer solutions as well as identify problems. It was only when he was interviewed in another Festival session the next morning that he explained that, as the Prime Minister's strategy advisor, he wasn't able to offer policy alternatives to the problems he had identified, presumably because it could be embarrassing to the Government.

In which case, why do the lecture at all? His answer was that he wanted to warn the television industry of the dangers to public service broadcasting likely to come from new technology - as if the audience was completely unaware of the threat.

What people wanted to hear was not that there was a threat - most understood that. What they wanted were solutions and, sadly, none were forthcoming. As such, it was an opportunity lost.