John Birt: the DG who refused to fade away

The man they dubbed 'the dalek', is speaking at Edinburgh - and BBC bosses are hiding behind the sofa.
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Birt has never accepted the convention that former heads of large organisations should avoid sitting in judgement over their successors. He believes himself perfectly equipped to offer advice on the BBC's future and the broader prospects for British broadcasting.

It is not foolish vanity. Birt was DG for eight years between 1992 and 2000 and he has private-sector experience to match. He began his career as a producer in 1968 and became head of current affairs at London Weekend Television in 1974. From there he moved on to be, successively, director of programmes at LWT, deputy director-general of the BBC, with responsibility for news and current affairs, and director-general.

The BBC he inherited was profligate, cavalier towards licence-payers and hostile to change. In the first Gulf war it was humbled by Ted Turner's CNN. Birt enforced reform. He launched new digital services and rolling news stations and embraced the internet. Colleagues were driven to despair by his "policy reviews". He lavished millions of pounds on management consultants.

Many at the BBC have never forgiven him. Birt was lampooned as a Dalek-voiced automaton, the term "Birtspeak" entering the language as a byword for new-fangled jargon. He was regarded as fonder of statistics than he was of people, and obsessed with the consultancy doctrine that to manage a process one must first find a way to measure it. One senior former executive describes the day he left as "like the overthrow of a communist regime. Greg Dyke [Birt's successor] was the Lech Walesa of Television Centre."

No wonder the combination of Birt and the Television Festival alarms the people around the current DG, Mark Thompson. The BBC already dismisses the fixture as a Beeb-knocking jamboree. The MacTaggart Lecture is a nadir during which critics are offered a platform to grind giant axes at the BBC's expense. A team of BBC press officers is kept on call to respond to the lecture. Usually the fuss amounts to a single day's newspaper coverage. This year it may last longer.

A senior former BBC executive explains: "John sees these events as very serious. He will have been writing this for months. Former DGs really should just recede back into obscurity. John has decided to be a bloody nuisance instead." He has the status to do it because he is now a "blue skies" policy adviser to the Prime Minister.

At Television Centre, the assumption is that Birt will use the MacTaggart platform as an opportunity to influence charter review. Insiders expect him to reiterate his support for top-slicing - the policy of allocating chunks of the licence fee to commercial broadcasters to fund public interest programmes. They also expect Birt to defend his own legacy by reminding his audience that the success of BBC digital and BBC online is built on foundations he laid.

Does Birt still have influence? BBC orthodoxy is that his role at Downing Street gives him little power over broadcasting. Insiders recall that the Secretary of State for Culture, Tessa Jowell, over-ruled his wish to abolish the board of governors and include top-slicing in the new BBC charter. The former executive explained: "If John is too direct in Edinburgh he is going to be seen as backing a loser."

The view inside government is less dismissive. One special adviser said: "The joke at No 10 is one that used to be told about McKinsey executives in the 1990s. 'What is the difference between ET and McKinsey? ET went home in the end.' John Birt has not gone home. If Blair did not listen to him he would have been kicked out. He is still there."

Another Labour adviser said: "Lord Birt has a close relationship with the Prime Minister. Tony Blair does not have much control over domestic policy, but to the extent that he influences it at all he does it through advisers. John Birt is among the most influential. Blair is close to Tessa personally but not intellectually. It is hard to be close to Tessa intellectually."

A balanced perspective emerges from a senior BBC Radio executive. "It is futile to dismiss John Birt simply because a lot of people who worked under him found him unpleasant. He got the strategy for the BBC right. He has an interesting mind even if he does disguise it behind an obsession with pie charts. He absolutely does have a role at No 10 where he does things and is useful."

Mark Thompson's confidants hope that is wrong. The gossip is that they are more interested in seeing Birt's new girlfriend than in hearing what he has to say. A producer explains: "His personal life has upset a lot of people. Jane [Birt] helped to make John DG. She was the perfect corporate wife and very popular at the BBC."

Associates say Birt was furious when the top-slicing proposal was rejected. With the BBC White Paper due in the autumn he has just weeks left in which to shift the agenda. His era at the BBC provided ample proof that he does not give up easily, so friends and foes alike expect his MacTaggart lecture to be combative. There are already signs that he is being listened to afresh at the Department for Culture. Last month Tessa Jowell told a House of Lords Select Committee that top-slicing remains a live issue. She predicted that the switch-over from analogue to digital TV in 2012 may render it necessary.

That may be later than Lord Birt intended. But Jowell's hint does suggest that he retains a talent for predicting the long-term future of broadcasting.

The real question is not whether Tony Blair listens to John Birt - he does, and the hostility of BBC insiders suggests they know it - but whether the Prime Minister considers broadcasting important enough to interfere. If he does, then Lord Birt may prove to be much more than the director-general who refused to fade away.

LIFE AND TV TIMES

1944 Born in Liverpool.

1966 Gains a third-class degree in engineering from St Catherine's College, Oxford. Begins broadcasting career at Granada Television as a current affairs producer.

1971 Moves to London Weekend Television (LWT). Responsible for producing The Frost Programme. Also launches Weekend World, developing more analytical approach to current affairs.

1974 Becomes head of current affairs at LWT. 1977 Produces David Frost's post-Watergate interviews with Richard Nixon.

1982 Becomes LWT's director of programmes.

1987 Becomes deputy director general of the BBC.

1992-2000 Director-general of the BBC, credited with introducing controversial market reforms and modernising BBC programming. He also kickstarts the corporation's moves into new media.

1995 Awarded an Emmy by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences in the US for his leadership of the BBC.

1999 Awarded a life peerage.

2001 Appointed by Tony Blair as an unpaid policy adviser.

2004 Becomes a member of PayPal's board of directors.

2005 (June) Resigns as a consultant for the management consultancy group McKinsey & Company, refuting any conflict of interest with his government role.

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