Birt approaches future in expansive mood: After the Government's ringing endorsement, Maggie Brown talks to a bullish BBC Director-General

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The Independent Online
THE DAY after the Government had comprehensively backed the BBC's reformist Director-General, and given the entire institution a secure lease of life into the 21st century, there was no disguising John Birt's jaunty air.

While the BBC's troops struggle to cope with the harsh market system he has imposed, he says that public bodies from around the world are starting to beat a path to the corporation's door to divine how the transformation in fortunes has been carried out.

Inside Mr Birt's spacious and sunny office, which spans the front of the famous curved facade at Broadcasting House, in central London, all is unexpectedly light and modernised, almost a metaphor for the streamlined BBC he aspires to mould in his image.

The heavy oak panelling has been cleaned, a trendy black sofa is framed by curvy black metal uplighters, and the walls newly lined with original Radio Times illustrations, rescued from the archives - one by Jean Cocteau.

Interviewed on television John Birt, 49, invariably comes across as a tense, even distant figure, fumbling for words. In the flesh, and in a one-to-one interview at the height of his victory, he is surprisingly relaxed. It seems incredible that only 14 months ago his position was so rocked by the disclosure of his freelance tax-avoidance status that resignation was even mooted: even now staff morale remains a festering problem.

Asked about the outcry which resulted in him keeping well away from journalists in ensuing months, he says tersely: 'I've been fantastically busy. That's long, long past. I don't even recognise the question.'

He is an immensely tough character and does not like to have his methodical train of thought interrupted before it has been completed.

With the BBC's funding secure, he promises that he's looking forward to greatly 'expanding our programmes and enhancing our output. Everybody is looking forward to that'. Today's publication of the corporation's annual report and accounts will hold out the promise of substantial additional savings, worth several hundreds of millions, being diverted into programmes over the next couple of years - on top of the extra pounds 100m programme funding found last year which so impressed the Government.

He outlines tentative projects for greatly expanding educational services, using new on-line databases, and plans for a 24-hour television news channel now the BBC is to be freed to run satellite and cable services: the main emphasis is on international expansion and making sure improved accounting systems are in place: no one believes that the commercial BBC World Service Television, for example, really pays for all the facilities it uses.

He says that the BBC managed its extraordinary feat of winning all-party political backing by creating 'a genuine consensus about the value of the institution, of it playing a major part into the 21st century', and did this at a time when the political climate shifted. 'There was a sense of the BBC as an institution, able to modernise itself, rather than having someone else modernise it,' he says. 'We haven't done this to satisfy the Government, there is no future in the BBC seeking to satisfy any government. Security rests on true consent, the support of the whole population.

'I'm absolutely clear if the BBC had not reorganised itself, we faced reform imposed upon us. However painful it has been, the changes have been with the grain of the institution.' If change had not come from within, 'all sorts of dreadful things would have happened and made people even more unhappy', he adds.

His contract expires at the end of 1997. Mr Birt says he has not thought about a second term, or even that far ahead. But he seems to have no intention of moving aside to allow a more emollient figure to take over, able to heal the internal wounds.

He concedes readily that he is deeply unpopular among the 20,000 staff: 'You don't do such jobs to be popular,' he says firmly. In his seven years at the BBC, 'I've only ever been motivated by a concern to restore its health and welfare: it's nonsense to claim I don't love the BBC'.

He admits that one of the failures has been in not persuading BBC staff about the need to change, but says that this was understandable in the light of substantial compulsory redundancies and the switch to producer choice, still harshly squeezing operations and fuelling the unresolved industrial dispute.

Mr Birt has also failed to carry the distinguished old guard of respected programme-makers who love the BBC and, one by one, have risen to attack him. 'I would wish some people who had been around a long time had worked harder to understand. Not a single one of them has worked hard to address the underlying problems.' And with that the interview, 40 minutes long, is firmly at an end.

(Photograph omitted)

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