Radical shake-up seals Birt's final victory

Changing face of BBC: Bureaucrats replace programme makers at Broadcasting House while Radio loses independent status
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The Independent Online
The BBC yesterday unveiled the most radical reorganisation in its 75-year history, in a move that confirmed the ultimate victory of John Birt's management revolution, and the final defeat of the corporation's retreating old guard.

The crowning insult was the confirmation that the BBC's historic headquarters, Broadcasting House in Portland Place, central London, would finally be emptied of all those who actually make programmes, and that the noble independent status of BBC Radio, the older but poorer sister to flash BBC Television, was to be crushed once and for all.

From early next year, BH, as it is known to staff and outsiders alike, will be home to "suits", the bureaucratic "Birtians," while the makers of such programmes as Radio 4"s Today programme are to be banished to the souless expanse of White City in west London.

That much had been known for some months. Worse, for those who hold the traditions of BBC Radio dear, the reorganisation unveiled yesterday will see the wireless operations completely subsumed under a new "streamlined" and efficient management structure, in the final chapter of Mr Birt's modernisation drive.

Judged against the extent of the Birtian victory, the restructuring itself seems oddly prosaic. From 1 April next year, the public-service broadcaster will for the first time separate its broadcasting and production operations, giving a new chief executive of BBC Broadcast control over scheduling and commissioning of programmes on radio and television.

But the move, which mirrors to a degree the system used by commercial broadcasters Channel 4 and ITV, is an inexorable step towards transforming the BBC into a "virtual corporation", which could eventually shed its production operations altogether.

The new head of BBC Broadcast, responsible for scheduling and commissioning for both radio and television, is Will Wyatt, current head of BBC Television and, like Mr Birt, a man who has demonstrated little interest in radio.

Any doubt that Mr Birt, whose revolution has been bitterly resisted, had not won the battle outright was swept aside yesterday, when he confirmed that he would stay on as the BBC's pounds 286,000-a-year director-general for another four years.

The BBC itself sees the changes as a way of "gearing up" for the digital age. In the next few years, it intends to introduce pay-television channels, a 24-hour all-news service and other supplements to the BBC1, BBC2 and radio operations.

It is the next logical move from Mr Birt's previous reforms - which featured cost-cutting, streamlining and "producer choice", allowing producers to choose whether to contract outside or internal services when they made their programmes. In the current round, another 20 per cent is meant to come out of production costs.

Mr Birt, who assumed his role in 1992, said the corporate restructuring had been contemplated as early as 1993, but was viewed as too radical a step. With digital television looming, a new structure was crucial.

"What we've got to ask ourselves in an ever more crowded broadcasting market place is: how is audience need and taste changing? how can we satisfy the needs of our audience most effectively across television and radio?" Mr Birt said in a BBC radio interview. "We now have a structure that will enable us to do that for the first time."

Reflecting Mr Birt's desire to introduce a more focused management structure, the reorganisation creates two new posts - a chief executive for BBC Broadcast, Mr Wyatt, and for BBC Production, Ronald Neil. Mr Wyatt will oversee four "directors" of television, radio, regional broadcasting and education.

Liz Forgan, who left her job as Head of Radio last April, is believed to have been briefed about the proposed restructuring and found it not to her taste. The new Director of Radio, Radio1 controller Matthew Bannister, will fill both positions but will report to Mr Wyatt.

Critics within the BBC immediately warned that the corporation's radio services would be downgraded and that the quality of mainstream services would be jeopardised.

"This is very concerning for radio," a senior journalist said. "We have always been the poor cousin, but at least when we had a separate directorate, we felt that we could be independent and flourish."

There was also concern that the BBC World Service would decline in quality, once its English-language services were placed under the direct control of the new production arm.

"It looks to me as if this is another stage in the steady corralling of the World Service into structures which may or may not suit the domestic BBC, but which I think probably do not suit the structures of the World Service,"John Tusa, former director of the service, said.

Mr Birt rejected the criticisms: "By bringing together all production - television, radio and multimedia - and separating it from scheduling and commissioning, we are creating the world's largest broadcasting production powerhouse."