Media: A long and winding road to the top: He used to sit on the steps of a Liverpool pub waiting for his gran. From this week John Birt is head of the BBC. Maggie Brown met him
Wednesday 30 December 1992
Since Birt joined the BBC as deputy director-general in 1987 from ITV he has been a controversial figure, first for his news and current affairs reforms, then for his obvious dislike of the corporation's feudal management style and organisation. Latterly, he has not seemed too keen on the quality of some programmes. Jonathan Powell, controller of BBC 1, has taken flight, while Radios 1 and 2 face remodelling. And Birt is an uncompromising champion of the BBC's most controversial proposal, a rolling news service on Radio 4 long wave.
By pitching himself skilfully as a radical reformer prepared to impose a modern management system on a ramshackle BBC, Birt has been able to win the trust of politicians - although this has fed suspicion among his critics that he has become too enmeshed with the Establishment.
A large, stylish man of 48, he has carefully identified with progressive causes, in particular the advancement of women and John Major's Opportunity 2000, while remaining apparently politically neutral.
With a chastened board of governors retreating from daily management issues - meetings will be monthly from January rather than fortnightly - he assumes great power in highly auspicious circumstances. Extending Choice, the BBC's proposals for a more upmarket and distinctive public broadcasting service, has been favourably received, although it candidly anticipates a sharp drop in audience share.
I interviewed John Birt at Broadcasting House last week while workmen were remodelling his suite of offices. His five-year contract runs from 1991 to 1996, with annual extensions thereafter. In January he will announce a
top-level reshuffle, naming a new team and structure.
But what of John Birt the person, the man behind the austere spectacles and enigmatic manner? Here is an edited version of an hour- long conversation.
Let's start with Liverpool. You seem to be very keen on your roots.
Yes, isn't everybody? . . . The background I come from is a Liverpool Catholic family. It's a commonplace in Liverpool for those families to be close-knit. I'm conscious of my family going back, and I'm conscious of my extended family, and I enjoy them. I tend only to see them at weddings and funerals, although I regularly visited my grandmother (until she died last year, aged 91). They are jolly, lively Liverpudlians who I'm glad to say aren't the least impressed with my progress through life and are always telling me what's wrong with the BBC.
I feel very at ease with people from Liverpool. A couple of times over the last few years I've assembled in my home parties of people from Liverpool whom I've met in London, as well as inviting people I knew in Liverpool.
Isn't that rather a self-conscious parody?
There is an element of that, it's part of the joke. A few months ago we had a party with a couple of dozen Liverpudlians. My mum and dad came and we had a Liverpool meal of chip butties, scouse, jelly and evap, and HP sauce with the scouse. Yes, it was deliberately self-conscious.
It probably tasted nice.
It did. People queued up twice for chip butties. The group was as disparate as Cilla Black and Robert Runcie. We all had an extremely good time.
Was it a working-class family?
My father's father was mostly an unemployed docker and therefore my father's early family circumstances were very poor. My mother's family also came from the dockland area of Liverpool, Bootle, and large parts of my extended family still live there, or close by.
But they were a family in transition?
My mother's family ran a canteen on the Dock Road, where I used to go when I was young. My grandmother ran it - she was a powerful matriarch. The canteen was in a cellar, with large numbers of dockers with mugs of tea and large plates of very fattening food, the air full of smoke and noise. My mother worked there as well when she was young. They couldn't be described as poor. They were making do, they were small business people.
My father started in manual jobs, then came back from the war, and like a lot of people was exposed to new horizons in the RAF. He was a clever man and started getting different sorts of jobs. (He rose to become a manager at Firestone Tyres.) I was born in 1944. We spent the early years in Bootle, but when I was quite young we started the transition, moved out to Formby, and I went to a good school.
You have a family connection with Northern Ireland?
My mother's side was Irish protestant. My parents' marriage was an unusual joining together and in the initial stages it was difficult. The families were very unhappy that a Protestant was marrying a Catholic. We were brought up as Catholics, and I went to Catholic schools.
You used to go to Northern Ireland as a boy on holiday?
My grandmother used to take me. These sorts of families don't go on holiday very often, they go on visits. We used to visit family in Belfast, on the Liverpool ferry. And my grandmother knew how to have a good time. We'd also go on coach tours around Ireland, and she'd always go without my grandfather, but with me. I was her favourite grandson.
I spent some parts of my childhood waiting for her on the steps of a pub in Liverpool . . . as a child you weren't allowed to go into pubs in England. She'd keep me on the steps of a pub then come out with a bottle of lemonade. But when we were in Ireland you were allowed to go in pubs. She liked coach tours, I still like the idea of coach tours myself. And she would carouse - she wasn't a drunkard, I never saw her drunk, but she loved Guinness, and I took a crate of Guinness every time I visited her.
I have images of her carousing at 4am with Irish Catholic priests on the deck of the ferry returning to Belfast, and I recall vividly sitting in pubs at midnight as a small boy in Ireland in a highly festive and jokey atmosphere.
She loved to talk: every time I visited she would just talk all the time you were there. She had a fund of stories and was a brilliant raconteuse.
You are involved in the difficult problems of reporting Northern Ireland. You clearly bring to your work a knowledge of the country.
I wouldn't say it was too profound as a child, but coming from both a Protestant and Catholic family I've always been alert to both sides of it, because I saw the Catholic side at school and the Protestant side through one set of grandparents and my family in Belfast.
Are you still a Catholic?
I think it has taken me until my forties to appreciate that culturally you probably always are a Catholic, but I'm not a practising Catholic and haven't been since I was about 20.
Are you a religious person?
I am not a religious person . . . but I'm a respecter. From that kind of background you cannot but respect religion, and have always been keen on taking religion seriously.
You went to St Mary's College in Liverpool, an Irish Christian Brothers boys' school, where they beat you.
Well, they didn't beat me much.
But you recently went back and told them what you thought about them.
I went last year. A new headteacher wrote to me, saying he was the first lay headteacher. He wanted to open the school to more debate. So I went to the school for the first time since I left it in the Sixties and spoke to the kids of what it was like to be in the school 25 years ago. I think you could have heard a pin drop when I talked about the regime of the school.
It wasn't a happy school?
It wasn't. It was a highly regimented form of education, underpinned by corporal punishment, beatings with the strap, on the hand usually, in extreme on the bottom. I wasn't often beaten, I was a good pupil and did my work.
You got beaten if you didn't do your work?
You got beaten just for being there. They were very strong on rote learning and testing. And piles of homework. And for people who fell down in any of these respects there was always summary justice.
It was a slightly cruel and oppressive environment. It wasn't so indiscriminate it affected people like me, except that the general climate wasn't open and liberating, and wasn't much interested in ideas. It was interested in getting you through your exams. At this it was brilliantly successful.
At the same time what was happening in Liverpool was extraordinary. I am of the same generation as the Beatles, all these things were happening when I was in the sixth form, it was a tremendously exciting place to be, Liverpool was still a prosperous place. The Beatles were typical of what young Liverpool people were like. So against this climate of fear in the school the culture was completely different.
I was in the rugby team. They didn't allow you to play football, they were intent on making you upwardly mobile so we never played football, only in the playground. Which is one of my grudges against the school. This was in a football-obsessed city.
Did that regime have any long-term effect on you? Professor Laurie Taylor, who also went to the school, says it made you sycophantic to those above, aggressive to those below.
I find any violence especially repugnant, and I hate the idea of violence being used to solve anything. I don't know truly about its effects. This is amateur psychology. It's just not credible that everyone who went through that school is adversely marked. The things people remark upon, my highly organised approach to work, probably comes more from being trained as a scientist.
You studied science (an engineering degree at St Catherine's College, Oxford), yet you ended up in a very arts-oriented world.
Physics, maths and further maths A-levels. Really, I'm a mathematician. It was to some extent an accident. One day the form teacher said: 'In your mocks you've got pretty high marks in every subject, you could really do whatever you want. But science is the future. If I were you I would do science.'
I said, OK. That was that. It was all settled in 30 seconds. Part of me doesn't regret it, any experience gives you strengths - I hope in my case, powers of analysis - but it wasn't very long, within weeks of arriving at university I realised . . . I suppose I should have changed course, but I didn't even know you could.
I went to do maths, but that did seem pretty grim, because I asked a teacher what could I do and he said I could be either a maths teacher or an insurance actuary, which didn't appeal. Being an engineer sounded more fun. I imagined going around the world, building bridges.
Oxford was a revelation to me. At home and school I wasn't exposed to either culture or politics. I had hardly ever been to the theatre. Within weeks at Oxford I was going to the cinema three or four times a week, going to the theatre, making films.
You were recruited as a trainee by Granada Television, wanted to make films, and ended up at World in Action.
It was an accident. There were nine people in the course, including Andrea Wonfor (now controller of arts and entertainment at Channel 4) and Nick Elliott (London Weekend Television's managing director of programmes). Nobody was interested in politics or journalism. I was more interested than most because by the time I left university I was reading the serious papers. At the end of the course the nine people had to be assigned to the jobs that were going. I got assigned to World in Action. I said I didn't want to work there, why couldn't I work in the drama department? They said, you're the only one we can send to World in Action, but don't worry, we'll get you out some time . . .
(John Birt swiftly made his name with his second television programme, a film bringing together Mick Jagger, the Archbishop of Canterbury and William Rees-Mogg.) It had a big impact on my career, I got hauled up and asked if I wanted to be a producer or director . . . so it got me on the road.
You recently said that every time you see the word 'Birtism' you feel dead. Is it really that bad to be associated with devising a serious approach to television journalism?
Nobody likes to be categorised and labelled. I feel caricatured. People don't look at what I have done in my career. I've worked on an unusually wide range of television programmes. I was very much involved with entertainment. One reason I went to LWT was that I was going to work on a range of programmes there. I hadn't been there very long when they asked me to start Weekend World. I needed huge persuasion to do that. But I was pressured and well paid to start it. Having taken it on, I enjoyed doing it. I'm not disowning any of my achievements.
What about BBC current affairs?
I am very proud of what has happened in current affairs.
But does it matter if Panorama is watched
by only five people, as its editor recently suggested?
No, no, Panorama should reach out to as wide an audience as possible, but I'm really proud of a programme such as On the Record. It is lively, smart, clever, well informed, all a programme like that should be.
Since you arrived at the BBC six years ago you've aroused a storm of hatred and abuse. Why, and how has it affected you?
One just has to observe the circumstances. I came to the BBC in the late Eighties, after it had gone through the deepest traumas in living memory: the breakdown between the boards (of governors and management), the firing of the director-general (Alasdair Milne). When I came the trauma was tangible inside the BBC.
And there was tremendous hostility towards the BBC right across the political spectrum. There was a lack of confidence in the institution that was quite widespread.
Didn't you contribute to this trauma by writing off BBC news and current affairs?
That is what they supposed. But I had a job to do. The BBC had its news and current affairs under four separate heads, not all of it was as good as it should be, that's why I was brought in. It was a job everyone believed needed doing.
Critics accuse you of cronyism, appointing your friends or former colleagues from LWT to key jobs. Why did you find it necessary to hire so many people from LWT?
I didn't hire so many people, I only hired one person, Samir Shah (deputy editor of news and current affairs). Everything else is done collaboratively. But what's wrong with bright and capable people from ITV or the independent sector coming to work at the BBC? I didn't bring Janet Street-Porter (head of youth and entertainment features) into the BBC. I did bring her into LWT and was very pleased to see her career develop.
You were involved in recruiting Peter Jay as economics editor of the BBC.
A lot of people were involved. But I'm not embarrassed about it. Peter Jay has been a brilliant success.
What about the David Frost deal, an old friend (who switches his Sunday morning programme to BBC 1 this Sunday, and has the unique right to sell it on immediately for rebroadcast on Rupert Murdoch's Sky News)?
I didn't bring David in. Others did. What lies behind this line of questioning? We must reach out to the best people. Our job is to serve the licence-fee payer, working with the most capable and talented we have. We have to reach out to the best people working in the independent sector, in newspapers, magazines, in other areas. We must be sure we are always trying to recruit the best talent.
During the past 18 months, when you've been dubbed a Trappist monk, you have attracted further intense hostility.
There are lots of armchair generals refighting old battles around this place. But some of the criticism is well intentioned and sincere. There are some who are critical for whom I have a high personal regard. Certainly the last 18 months produced a pretty volatile, combustible situation. But Extending Choice, inside and outside the BBC, has had a warm welcome. It is a statement of purpose that commands fairly wide assent inside and outside. A lot of the past 18 months was about people fearing we were going to say things that we didn't. In the long run I have no doubt the BBC is getting stronger.
The old guard say you don't like the BBC.
It's not true. What I love about the BBC is its creative tradition and its focus and concentration on high creativity and craft excellence. But it is not always true that the BBC was organised and managed in a way to bring that out. That's my job.
Quite a few people describe you as an Oliver Cromwell-style figure. Someone who is very determined, and brooks no opposition.
I think that is a caricature. I would be really disappointed if people who work closely with me didn't say I am always interested in dialogue, I don't make up my mind quickly, I do like to get at the facts, I do like to lay them on the table. We spent years producing Extending Choice, not minutes. I'm someone who wants to be surrounded by people of great ability, and insight and creativity. And I want to work in a team.
People say you have a discussion, but then the portcullis comes down and there is no budging you after that.
No, I don't recognise that the portcullis ever comes down, because I am always ready to hear good argument. What I am intolerant of is obstructionism.
You mean people obstructing you when they are not basing arguments on reason?
It's when people make arguments not because of the greater good but because they say, if you do things this way then this group of people who have always done it another way will be affected by it in a way they don't like: it's where you've got sectional or vested interests involved. I don't like obstructionism.
Under you the BBC will be managed differently, with formal decisions coming through, rather like government White Papers.
Absolutely. I want a team to be running the BBC which collaborates, shares its problems, gets everything out in the open, lengthy discussions, policies that are considered and which are robust and everyone agrees with, policies at the top that apply all the way down. I'm looking for a collegiate, involving atmosphere, getting the best out of everyone who works here.
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