Media Viewpoint: How Birt's BBC empire strikes back

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

Guru Careers: Senior Account Manager / SAM

£30 - 35k: Guru Careers: A Senior Account Manager / SAM is needed to join the ...

Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager (EMEA) - City, London

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Manager...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?