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

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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Lead Systems Developer / Software Developer

COMPETITIVE + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: A Lead Systems Developer / Sof...

Recruitment Genius: Social Media & Engagement Manager - French or German Speaker

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: The world's leading financial services careers...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive - 6 Months Contract

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Digital Marketing Executive...

Guru Careers: Account Manager / Senior Account Manager

40-45K DOE + Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Manager / Senior Account Manag...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future