Mathew Horsman; On why John Birt is right

Bill Bryson, travel writer and former Independent staffer, once wrote, apropos of the trendy main courses on menus in even out-of-the- way provincial hotels, so often followed by bread-and-butter pudding or sherry trifle, that you can do a lot to the English, but "don't f*** with their pudding."

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Ashdown Group: Analyst Programmer (Filemaker Pro/ SQL) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days, pension, private medical : Ashdown Group: A highly...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm - London

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Accountant -Home Entertainment

£200 - £250 per day: Sauce Recruitment: 6 month contract (Initially)A global e...

Sauce Recruitment: Financial Accountant -Home Entertainment

£200 - £250 per day: Sauce Recruitment: 6 month contract (Initially)A global e...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea