Media: BBC Under Birt: Change is proving a white-knuckle ride for staff, but all is well at the leaner, fitter corporation, says David Hatch

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The Independent Online
NO INSTITUTION in the United Kingdom receives more daily press coverage than the BBC, nearly all of it hostile, a vast amount unfair.

This week sees yet another burst of grousing about the BBC, its management style and its future. We are the biggest generator of new product in the UK. Every programme is hand- stitched, and inevitably some don't fit, come to bits, are poorly made or remain unbought.

What is constantly forgotten is that such programmes are a tiny minority and that dishing out praise is not a national British characteristic. So, as the guns roared, Alasdair Milne left the director-general's chair for failing to hear amid the cacophony that the megaphone message of criticism had support way beyond Westminster. Michael Checkland heard it, sounded the siren and ordered the ship to stop. Having done that he identified a different agenda for us.

So began the process of contracting out, reducing staff numbers, increasing productivity and rationalising our studios and property portfolio. The effect was seismic, but it was only the beginning.

The new director-general, John Birt, prepared a meticulous, all-embracing plan to take us to the new world. Its kernel was that change was to be as endemic to our culture as to inform, educate and entertain. He provided the architecture to highlight the progress, or lack of it, on a range of objectives. He moved us inexorably and frighteningly to 'battle speed'. The overriding task was to get Aunty to the church on time.

Each director-general that I have served - Greene, Curran, Trethowan, Milne, Checkland and Birt - has been of his time. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Greene opened the windows on a wider world; Curran ensured that we didn't overdose and leap through them shouting hallelujah; Trethowan skilfully found the middle ground and secured our last charter; Milne pounded the organisation about the pre-eminence of the programme maker; Checkland taught us that the latter could only flourish in a modern business environment. Birt brings all these things together: open the windows but think before you jump; without a new charter, we all go home; programmes are supreme, but only if the price and purpose is right.

We came from a culture of 'We know best, we are the best, we'll make it all ourselves, our size is our strength, what happens outside is their business.' Now there is a painful recognition that we have much to learn from our competitors and that our size was a weakness. We are embracing independent production and releasing new talents.

By this recognition and through distillation of internal task force reports, we arrived at our propositions set out in Extending Choice: distinctiveness, value for money and accountability. The first two play well with the vast majority of people. The concern comes over accountability. Our structure is criticised, so is our seeming inattention to what the public wants and requires. Our competitors seek a level playing field and ask about our commercial policy. These things are being addressed by John Birt. But he is not alone. The BBC is a democracy and always will be.

Birt requires us to become 'the best managed public institution in the UK,' and he wants it yesterday. The reason for the urgency is that the megaphone message was not heard early enough, the liner took a while to stop and turn. To earn a new charter and decent licence-fee settlement, it is vital that we are, and are seen to be, lean, focused and modern.

Our staff are magnificent, adaptable, willing and brave, but not unnaturally, they complain that the journey we are on is hairy. Our new powerful engines of Producer Choice, Independent Production and Bi-Media make it a white-knuckle ride for all of us.

Our staff set fiercely high standards for themselves; they are immensely critical and judge their masters as they judge their own work, with an independent spirit. The programme of change has been shoe- horned into the corporation schedule almost overnight.

Of course staff are nervous. But we haven't imbued them with the necessity for, and importance of, the rescheduling. When they attend John Birt's infamous 'One-Day Events' - sessions with employees - they will realise why. We will tell them about the new world we inhabit, the explosion of satellite TV and radio channels, the requirements of the market place, the effect of static growth in households on our income. Of more concern than their perception of management is their lack of certainty about our objectives. We must and will address those deficiencies.

Is it a better or worse BBC than when I first joined the board? Our programmes still continue to win an abundance of prizes so at its heart and soul, all is fine and as it was. What is different is the environment of an infinitely more competitive and challenging media world.

As a Reithian, I'm convinced that our founder would approve of the vigour and pragmatism with which his vision is being refocused to face the rigours of the 21st century.

The writer is adviser to the director-general and a former managing director, BBC Network Radio.

(Photograph omitted)