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.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

(Junior) IT Systems Administrator / Infrastructure Analyst

£28000 - £32000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly ...

Sales Engineer - Cowes - £30K-£40K

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: Sales Engineer - Cow...

Web / Digital Analyst - Google Analytics, Omniture

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: My client who are a leading publisher in...

Sales Perfomance Manager. Marylebone, London

£45-£57k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

Day In a Page

Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?