Media Viewpoint: How Birt's BBC empire strikes back

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The Independent Online
FOR SOMEONE who is just doing his job, John Birt has been getting a terrible press. It is certainly true that his articulation of the vision thing makes George Bush look like Sir Thomas More composing Utopia, but so what? What we hear from Mr Birt is less 'Beebspeak' than it is the sound of one hand clapping.

A great debate is supposed to be under way about the future of the BBC. But the strategic issues are already decided: the BBC will be funded by a hypothecated tax, governed by a quango and remain at its present enormous size into the next century. All this the Government conceded in its Green Paper.

What remains is only a number of comparatively minor tactical issues, from the proposal to create rolling news services to the institution of an artificial internal market. As these lend themselves to 'Beebspeak', that is what Mr Birt delivers.

The BBC director-general's job, like that of any chief executive, is to preserve and enhance the power of the corporation he leads. Will Mr Birt's half-baked business school jargon and the unrisen business school nostrums work to these ends? It could not matter less strategically.

John Birt is proposing that the BBC continues to do everything it currently does, only more so. Not for him - quite rightly since the Government has not forced it on him - an anguished examination of the public service principle.

Instead, as the master of British broadcasting's largest and most stable revenue stream, he offers a Star Wars strategy. He will use his money to outbid and outproduce all rivals. He is about to Reaganise the Gorbachevian opposition in its terrestrial, as well as its new-fangled, heavenly and subterranean forms.

The beauty is that, all the while, he pretends to a fearfulness of 'the new broadcasting age'. By the year 2000 this age, supposedly, will boast 20 television channels and 15 radio stations. A straitened BBC will then have only a quarter of all broadcast revenues. Yet, according to these same BBC projections, each new television channel will have at most a quarter the revenues of its BBC or commercial rivals.

Clearly, this will work only if programming costs are elastic - very elastic. However, such costs reflect audience expectations that in this regard are extremely conservative.

It is possible to do things more cheaply than the industry traditionally does; but between Hollywood's pounds 1m-an-hour filmed drama and an amateur with a camcorder lies a line that television providers cross at their peril. Add the fact that people have to work and sleep as they did before they had 20 channels, and the 'new age' begins to look decidely uncertain.

Enter America to sustain this vision of 20-channel Britain. But the US experience shows that beyond channels for movies, rolling news, rolling weather, kids, pop videos, sports and repeats, the challenge of the new technology can be contained. The majority of sets the majority of the time are still tuned to broadcasters. Current network poverty is a temporary result of outmoded regulation: for instance, the statutory licence that allows cable to rebroadcast network signals for a pittance.

The BBC claims that the average US household receives 50 televison channels, but in fact four of every 10 homes is still not cabled. The 50 channels are actually 37, and include the retransmission of broadcasters and teletext services. And all this in a market which already has about five times the revenues the BBC is projecting for the UK in 2000.

That none of this erroneous analysis really matters is proved by John Birt's plan to go on as if nothing in the external environment requires a response - beyond minor joint ventures and another probably doomed attempt to get the BBC to function more rationally.

But the supposed 'new age' threat is nevertheless crucial to Mr Birt. It lets him soften up the old guard within the BBC. And it allows him, in the name of ruthless clear-sightedness, to say that the BBC's audiences are to diminish rapidly in the next seven years.

This last is the master stroke. It puts Mr Birt in a 'win-win' situation. If the BBC's audience declines, he has explained why it will not be his fault.

But if the technological advance is not inexorable, where will Mr Birt be? If this decline does not come to pass, if his Star Wars strategy works (as is more than likely) and he preserves the BBC's position, then, despite the Beebspeak and the discredited management fixes, he will turn out to be the greatest DG of them all.

The author is Professor of Journalism at the University of Wales, Cardiff.