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
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Homer’s equation, in an episode in 1998, comes close to the truth, as revealed 14 years later
science
News
news
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst - High Wycombe - £30,000

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Business Systems Analyst role...

Guru Careers: Talent Manager

£30-35k (P/T - Pro Rata) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienc...

Sauce Recruitment: New Media Marketing Manager - EMEA - Digital Distribution

£35000 - £45000 per annum + up to £45,000: Sauce Recruitment: The Internation...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003