John Birt: Brain for sale (one careless owner)

Having made his name in television as a brilliant if bloodless clear-thinker, he is now tipped for yet further preferment in Downing Street. With few allies in Whitehall and no great skills as a persuader, he may wish he'd made more friends on the way up. But then, like his friend Peter Mandelson, he always has the PM...
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The Independent Online

Only his cruellest enemies will have taken pleasure in the news of John Birt's recent marriage break-up. The rest of us may have confined ourselves to a guilty snigger at the version of events carried by Private Eye magazine, which claimed to have unearthed an e-mail sent by the former BBC director general to his wife of 40 years, announcing that he was leaving her: "Having undergone a thorough re-evaluation of our long-term cohabitation structure, I regret to inform you that, as a result of a rationalisation process, your position as marital partner has become surplus to requirements."

Sadly for Lord Birt - now ensconced at the centre of the Prime Minister's circle - he, like their mutual friend Peter Mandelson, has plenty of such enemies. For through negligence or design (probably the former), Lord Birt, 60, appears to have spent a career collecting them. And his move into governmental circles four years ago merely lengthened the list.

His adversaries will not have enjoyed reading all the recent reports about the Prime Minister's "blue skies thinker", a man with a marked liking for moving in powerful circles. Last week it was reported that Tony Blair plans to make Birt his minister in charge of streamlining the civil service. Earlier this year it was disclosed that the cabinet secretary has instructed every permanent secretary in the civil service to include him in all major projects.

Yet despite these stories - and the fact that the PM has asked Birt to draw up reports (all unpublished) on subjects as diverse as crime, transport and drugs - it is not clear that Birt's influence is as large as he would wish to be believed. Indeed, it is difficult to find Birt's fingerprints on the Labour manifesto, say those in a position to know - and the Prime Minister has admitted that, for example, there "probably isn't much support in the country" for his adviser's ideas on transport.

"The notion that John could walk in the room, sit on Blair and he is swayed by this is just so wide of the mark," says a pivotal figure who knows both men well.

"I am astonished that reputable journalists who should know better still circulate this. The whole idea that Tony rents out space in his brain to John is a complete misunderstanding."

Another well connected source, an adviser to the PM, says that Birt - an engineer by training - has been frustrated by his lack of tangible results.

Birt, says the adviser, has "not got many troops and has to rely almost purely on the quality of the work he has done. His brains are his only asset - and this has been more problematic to both of them than either he or Tony imagined."

The problem, according to another voice from within the Downing Street circle, is that Birt "has no idea of how an adviser actually gets things done". He is, to boot, "charming upwards and patronising downwards".

Little wonder that cabinet ministers - most notably friends of Alistair Darling and Tessa Jowell - made sure that the parliamentary lobby has been kept fully informed of their policy victories over the Prime Minister's man. And it is not surprising that Birt's request to be paid for his for his "blue sky thinking" reached the public domain. (Until now, Birt's currency has been kudos; now that that might be drying up, he is reported to be looking for hard cash.)

So what does Blair see in Birt? The answer, from all quarters, is the same: a resolute and logical approach, informed by a brilliant intelligence and untainted by emotion or bias.

Birt's secret, says an associate of Blair, "is that he gives the Prime Minister clarity. And he does not think: 'I've got to give him a solution which will appeal to my trade union mates' - because he hasn't got any - nor is he worried about what big business thinks. John does not think about any of that. He thinks about what makes sense."

This strength was ultimately Birt's undoing as director-general of the BBC. One former senior BBC editor explains: "He is a man who likes to think literally not laterally. He is baffled by people who are more instinctive."

Birt, a product of Merseybeat Liverpool and father of two grown-up children, is many things. He is passionate in his support of Liverpool Football Club, and in his enthusiasm for walking near his house in the Wye Valley, but colleagues do not find him warm.

"He is painfully shy in large groups," according to a former colleague, and "doesn't have the very basics of leadership - being inspiring or motivating, or thanking people."

Sir John Tusa, managing director of BBC World Service from 1986 to 1992, worked alongside Birt for five years when the latter was deputy director-general. Tusa describes a man who would sit in governors' meetings studiously writing longhand notes about what he was going to say and delivering little support to colleagues - particularly his boss, Michael Checkland.

Birt's cold logic ground down the BBC, says Tusa. "He didn't understand the way the place lived and breathed - actually, to the extent that he did, he didn't like it," he says. "He had no time for 'public service' because you cannot quantify it. That fact that it made everybody in the BBC work creatively he simply could never understand."

Yet Birt's time at the BBC needs to be seen in the round. For all the criticism - a 1996 survey that found 97 per cent of the staff were unhappy about the way the BBC was being managed - the director-general believes his introduction of an internal market saved the corporation from a Conservative government with ideas about breaking it up and privatising it. Birt also realised the importance of the nascent internet and oversaw the launch of Radio Five Live, an undoubted triumph, the ending of the Smashie and Nicey era at Radio 1, and the birth of News 24.

The former senior BBC colleague says: "Some of the good things he did are never acknowledged because he was so disliked and dismissive of people."

Birt himself has recognised how unpopular he was within Broadcasting House and TV Centre: "I was the Protestant made Pope." But he says his efforts were worth it: "The BBC that I went into was on the rocks... Its journalism was not strong. It was bloated and inefficient. It was unaccountable. It was unstrategic. It had no centre. It was unmanaged... At the end of my period as director-general we had a BBC that was far stronger in every respect."

But to Tusa the balance sheet is firmly in the negative: "He says he saved the BBC. I simply don't buy it. There is absolutely no evidence that a different approach wouldn't have worked."

The question is whether, presuming a Blair victory on 5 May, Birt's cold, über-efficient approach will finally be brought out of the shadows and on to the government benches.