Media: A good year for Birt (and his taxman): In his first 12 months, the new BBC director-general raised lots of questions. Michael Leapman provides the answers

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The Independent Online
Can it really be only a year since John Birt took over as director-general of the BBC?

Yes. It seems longer because the appointment was announced a long time in advance. Birt had to continue to serve as deputy DG while Sir Michael Checkland worked out the extra year the governors awarded him as consolation for not giving him a further five years. Birt felt like an heir to the throne waiting for the monarch to die. In the end, Sir Michael abdicated three months ahead of schedule.

After that trauma, has Birt had a good first year?

He thinks so. He told an interviewer he has never had a year of greater achievement. Yet since it is one in which he has been persistently and openly vilified by members of his staff and been forced to admit a serious misjudgement over his personal finances, you might think his biggest achievement has been to cling to his job.

Remind me about the money.

The Independent on Sunday revealed that he had remained on a freelance contract while serving as DG. This meant he could write off a lot of expenditure, such as his suits and the secretarial assistance of his wife, against his income tax.

What did he do when he was found out?

Left his accountant and promised to join the BBC staff.

What did the governors do?

Huffed, puffed and tut-tutted. Some went on record as saying how deplorable it all was. Sir Michael Checkland called for the resignation of the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, but Hussey had no trouble in persuading his colleagues the storm would soon pass over.

Did it?

Not really. Birt put up a limp defence when publicly cross-examined by Jeremy Isaacs, the former head of Channel 4. For weeks, when he made public speeches, he felt obliged to preface them with an apology. The staff were deeply miffed. It was already clear to them that Birt had no affection for the old BBC they had helped to create, and they were already smarting under the changes he was forcing through. They hoped he might be forced to resign.

What changes?

Getting rid of a lot of people and introducing Producer Choice.

What's that?

A Thatcherite internal market mechanism. All BBC facilities - studios, cameras, electricians, etc - have been set up as separate business units and charge other units for doing things, like an elaborate game of Monopoly. Producers who used to get studios free now have to pay rent but can also shop around for cheaper facilities elsewhere.

Sounds liberating. Why don't producers like it?

They say they spend too much time filling in forms.

What are they doing about it?

Generally feeding discontent by ringing up sympathetic journalists and whingeing anonymously. Some, such as Mark Tully and David Dimbleby, have expressed opposition more openly.

How has Birt reacted?

By vowing to simplify the system.

If it makes him so unpopular, why not scrap it altogether?

That is really two questions. First, he does not seem to mind being unpopular. Second, he will not scrap it because he is trying to convince the Government that he has clamped down on profligate spending. He hopes this will persuade ministers to continue with the licence fee as the means of funding the BBC when its charter is renewed in 1996.

Will he succeed?

Probably. He received a boost this month when the National Heritage Select Committee recommended sticking with the licence. Everybody complains about it - especially those who do not watch the BBC much - but it is hard to think of a better way of raising the money.

What sort of a year has it been for BBC programmes?

Poor. ITV usually has a bad time in the year its franchises change, but BBC 1 has been quite unable to exploit this, struggling to hold a third of the national audience, while ITV gets 40 per cent. Channel 4, meanwhile, is striding ahead of BBC 2.

What is Birt's plan to correct this?

Muddled. Just before he took over he issued a manifesto entitled Extending Choice, where he seemed to be staking out a position for the BBC on the high ground: no derivative or formulaic shows, leave those to the commercial sector. That squared with what he had already done on news and current affairs, introducing rigorous standards of meticulous preparation and lots of explanation and analysis - what became known as Birtism. When the formulaic Eldorado was cancelled, that seemed to confirm the general upmarket drift.

And then?

He appointed Alan Yentob and Liz Forgan to look at all BBC activities and recommend a new strategy. They concluded that the BBC was 'super-serving' the middle classes in south-east England and needed to reach out to a wider constituency, both geographically and socio-economically.

In other words, get bigger audiences by moving downmarket?

You might think so, but if you use that word in front of Yentob and Forgan they will bite your head off. They prefer sonorous but less specific phrases such as 'extending range and diversity'.

But surely, if you are talking about strengthening mass entertainment, the last people you would choose to do it are Yentob, who comes from BBC 2, and Forgan, from Channel 4?

Quite, but converts make the best zealots. Anyway, they have hired David Liddiment from Granada to tell them how to do it.

How else does the BBC intend reaching out to the masses?

The first change has been in the proposed all-news radio service, replacing Radio 5 in the spring. This was originally going to be fairly earnest - Birtist, indeed - but now it is to have a tabloid agenda and a lot of live sport. It is already widely known as Radio Bloke, because of its expected appeal to lager louts.

Any other downmarket symptoms?

Birtists have been removed from key positions in News and Current Affairs and even Panorama is trying to up its ratings by choosing sexier subjects. There is to be a chatty, early- evening current affairs programme on BBC 1, oozing range and diversity.

Finally and very briefly, what's the verdict on the director-general's first year?

Bad if you are a BBC employee, a fan of Eldorado, a middle-class Londoner or Birt's ex-accountant. Good if you are a sports-loving tabloid reader from Stoke, an ITV scheduler or Birt's tax inspector.

(Photograph omitted)