I was reminded of his observation by the incredible response from BBC insiders to the Independent's feature last week that ran under the headline "John Birt: the Devil and the BBC." It appears you can say a lot about the state of British broadcasting, about the rapid changes in the marketplace, about the advent of digital technology, about the financial squeeze that poses such a big threat to public service broadcasting, but don't, ever, "f*** with the BBC".
That is what Birt is accused of doing. By extension, the Independent comes in for some of the same for having defended if not Birt then at least the organising principle of Birtism - that the BBC must respond to a changing broadcasting environment or risk withering away.
The criticisms came in many forms. The first can be dispensed with quite easily, for it went along quite predictable lines. "Have you ever worked at the BBC? I thought not." Or, worse, "What would a Canadian know about the BBC and its place in Britain?" (Guilty of the nationality charge, even still, carry the passport). This kind of argument is hardly convincing, especially when it comes from a maker of factual films about events in foreign climes. What does a British documentary film-maker know about China? Notwithstanding years of living in Britain, I spent my formative years being educated and entertained by the CBC, which as we all know emerged Athena-like from the head of the BBC, and has been paying due homage ever since.
Another intriguing complaint concerned my colleague, John Price, who commissioned the feature and whom two callers gleefully "accused" of having been at school (and a fundamentalist Catholic one at that) with one John Birt. So what?
The more penetrating criticisms require a bit more thought. Several current and former BBC staff were incensed that there had been no consultation before the radical reorganisation was announced. This, they said, was typical of Birt's "Stalinism" and would create tensions that could last years.
They and others were also upset that so many managers cannot find a place for themselves on the new organigramme, whereby for the first time in the BBC's history, there is to be a split between commissioning/scheduling on the one hand and production on the other. That has understandably led to some anxiety. Will they even have jobs following this latest stage of the Birtian revolution?
Let's concede the point. There is something wholly distasteful about the furtive way Birt made and then announced his shake-up decision. Odious behavior even in the private sector, and quite atrocious in a public-service environment. Sowing doubt among staff by refusing to quantify job losses that could result from the restructuring is equally counter-productive.
The situation has been clarified in recent days, with Alan Yentob, former Controller of BBC1, now confirmed as director of programmes at BBC Production, and Michael Jackson on board as director of television at BBC Broadcast, and controller of BBC1. Perhaps other staff will be told now where they stand.
Some of the comments we received were more personal in nature: "Birt is an animal, and he has turned the BBC from a cohesive, coherent unit into a jungle," says one former manager. (Cohesive? Coherent? Just when was the BBC either?) "What I can't forgive him for is his philistinism," says another senior producer, this one still on the payroll. "You have been duped by one of great disasters of British broadcasting - John Birt," says another, anonymous caller, this one a good deal younger than the others. There can't have been too many days since Birt arrived in 1992 that someone, somewhere at the BBC did not curse his name.
But at the risk of inciting yet another round of letters and phone calls, let me just repeat the substance of our commentary piece of last week. The BBC is faced with growing competition in the multi-channel age, and the prospect of digital satellite, cable and terrestrial cannot be ignored. Put simply, the BBC is no longer in a privileged position in the marketplace. Its funding has already been severely affected by Government policy, and the future of the licence fee is in grave doubt in light of audience trends and the likely further fragmentation of broadcasting.
One simply cannot continue to act as if nothing has changed. I, for one, would prefer to see a licence fee-funded service guaranteed forever, with sensible rises every year and a one-off levy to help the BBC pay for the development of additional digital services. But that is not what this Government proposes. Birt is there to carry out the wishes of a government more inclined to undermine the public-service nature of the BBC than to support it.
Once you concede this point (and you must unless you believe the Government could and would stop the digital revolution), you must accept the need for change.
Certainly, the details of Birt's blueprint are not universally defensible. He seems to have unnecessarily downgraded radio, and is guilty of quite cavalier attitudes toward the World Service. These details ought to be fought over, criticised, reviewed and revised. But none of this changes the underlying conditions that led to the reorganisation in the first place. Damn Birt if you will, but you cannot ignore his message.