Cracks show in Birt's BBC edifice: The Corporation's management may be ready for compromise on reform, reports Peter Koenig

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The Independent Online
WHEN John Birt was asked recently what it felt like to be introducing sweeping reforms to the BBC in the face of widespread staff resistance, he is reported to have replied: 'Like an American in Vietnam.'

After Mark Tully's speech to the Radio Academy in Birmingham last week, Mr Birt could no longer make this complaint. Sniping, ambushes, and booby-traps were dispensed with; the conflict had moved to the open battlefield, and he was losing.

In the Birmingham exchanges, and in the chilling survey of BBC staff opinion released on Friday, it was established beyond dispute that Mr Birt has failed spectacularly to win the hearts and minds of his staff. Worse, he has alienated and outraged them.

With BBC1 ratings at an eight- year low, the pressure on the corporation's senior management to change course is intense. Mr Birt himself showed the strain in his Birmingham speech with a bitter complaint about 'black propaganda', and his deputy, Bob Phillis, spoke in an interview late last week of 'the pain we are all going through at the moment'.

The signs are that some in the BBC's senior management are ready for compromise. Interviewed on Friday night, Mr Phillis held out an olive branch to disaffected staff, stressing that everyone inside the BBC was working 'from the shared values of excellence and quality'.

A more concrete indication of change came from Rodney Baker-Bates, the BBC finance director. In a separate interview, he said: 'I have been asked by John Birt to review Producer Choice.' This is the three-month-old internal market scheme which is at the heart of the dispute. It aims to make programme makers more accountable by obliging them to buy services from the various BBC departments, or outside bodies if they prefer. Among the many complaints against Producer Choice is that it is bureaucratic.

Mr Baker-Bates said: 'My feeling is that transactions of under pounds 100 should not have to be itemised, and that only BBC departments turning over more than pounds 10m in revenues a year should be treated as business units.' If this change was adopted, it would represent a substantial retreat by the BBC management, effectively exempting smaller departments from Producer Choice and lifting a burden of petty accounting across the whole corporation.

Both Mr Phillis and Mr Baker- Bates suggested that the BBC had reached a critical stage in its six- year-old reform programme and that unless management and staff reached a truce, the BBC could be destroyed.

But the deputy director general made clear that no about-turn would result from the Tully-Birt clash. 'To personalise BBC reforms in terms of two men opposing each other is to miss the thrust of what is going on,' Mr Phillis said. 'Regardless of the personalities involved, the BBC must face the economic realities.'

Mr Birt's supporters both inside and outside the corporation point out with some justice that his critics, for all their emotional words, offer no answer to these 'economic realities'. These were summed up succinctly in Birmingham by Mr Birt himself. 'Our revenue is effectively flat,' he said. 'Meanwhile, alas, some of our costs, the ones dictated by competitive pressure, are rising.'

But all efforts last week to force the critics on to the defensive failed. Mr Birt, to his intense discomfort, remains on the spot - as he has been ever since his unusual tax arrangements were exposed in March. The man, his style and his views are the core of the dispute and it is how he personally responds to the pressures, rather than any tinkering with Producer Choice by his subordinates, that will determine whether peace can be restored.

Mr Birt may know what the problem is, but he has yet to convince his staff, or the BBC's many admirers, that he is committed to saving public-service broadcasting in a form worth saving. Everyone agrees on the diagnosis but there is a widespread suspicion that as a treatment, 'Birtism' will kill the patient.

What is Birtism? Like 'Thatcherism' before it, the word has entered the language, but its meaning is nothing like so distinct. Like Mr Birt himself, who behind his intellectual armour remains a curiously blurred figure, the ideology means different things to different people. Indeed at different stages of the man's career, it has meant different things. Here are some of its forms: Birtism as television

'There is a bias in television journalism,' Mr Birt wrote in a now famous Times opinion piece on 28 February 1975. 'It is not against any particular party or point of view - it is a bias against understanding.' He went on to champion 'analytical' television journalism as an antidote - the kind of television journalism he had pioneered on London Weekend Television's Weekend World.

Where Mr Birt spoke of logic, however, those working with him spoke of something else. 'Birt's programmes were built on analysis,' says a former Weekend World producer, 'but they were also totalitarian. There were never any contingent events in Birt's world. If you dissented from the line once it was agreed upon, you were crushed.'

Mr Birt's posture in public life, then, has been fixed since Weekend World. Here was an outsider, a radical critic of the status quo, sweeping all before him - clad, however, in the armour of intellectual constructs.

Birtism as a political strategy

For every BBC producer who despises Mr Birt for remaking the BBC in the image of Mrs Thatcher's Britain, there is a Thatcherite who despises Mr Birt for thwarting real reform at the corporation: privatisation or the introduction of advertising.

Under Mr Birt, the BBC looks set to win a new charter from the Government without giving up its licence fee. 'You watch,' says Sir Alan Peacock, the Scottish economist who led Mrs Thatcher's 1986 review of BBC financing, 'once the charter is renewed the licence will begin rising again at more than the rate of inflation.'

By dressing the BBC in Thatcherite garb, in other words, Mr Birt has steered the BBC through the gauntlet of Thatcherite hatred. 'If we'd failed to put our own house in order,' he declared last week, 'others would have been sent in to do it for us.'

Birtism as a personnel policy

Since Mr Birt joined the BBC in 1987, friends and former colleagues from the world of commercial television have joined him: Peter Jay, , Samir Shah and Liz Forgan, to name but three.

Meanwhile, the BBC has reduced its workforce by 25 per cent, to 23,000. The cuts have resulted in what the BBC terms 'an unusual' age profile - three times as many staff are under 30 as over 50.

Job cuts are unpleasant but necessary, counters Rodney Baker-Bates. 'Parliament has mandated we get a quarter of our programmes from outside producers,' he said. 'What else can you do but reduce capacity?'

In trimming BBC staff, however, Mr Birt has shown an icy insensitivity, according to Roger Bolton, an executive of Bectu, the union of broadcasting technicians. And, by hiring friends and old colleagues, Mr Birt has revealed a sense of being under siege at the BBC.

Birtism as a management system

'What is John Birt like?' asks a senior BBC manager rhetorically. 'Well, he's very interested in organisational change.'

Birtism in its current incarnation is all about organisational change. Under Producer Choice, Mr Birt has created an NHS-style internal market in the BBC. He has divided the 23,000 staff into 8,500 'buyers' and 14,500 'sellers'. Since 1 April 'buyers' - producers - have had the option of shopping outside for back-up services. 'Sellers' - studio managers, camera crews, technicians, librarians - are obliged to do enough 'business' with BBC producers to justify their jobs.

'Producers are happy to be able to shop outside for back-up services,' says a management consultant helping to implement Producer Choice. 'But they object to Producer Choice because it has been imposed from above, despite serious misgivings.

'However you define Birt's management approach, you must question it, because it has generated no trust.'

At its core, Producer Choice is the supreme expression of Birtism inside the BBC. It is an intellectually daunting, even beautiful, construct. In a single stroke it imposes financial accountability upon BBC staff. It allows the BBC to demonstrate to the Government that it has control of its costs, and in a language the Government understands. Beyond this, it forces BBC staff to think in a more entrepreneurial way about their jobs. BBC staff become competing 'business units'. Those who resist the new ethos risk losing their jobs.

Birtism as a corporate strategy

Mr Birt's goal is to reduce the cost of programme-making at the BBC while preserving its quality. He wants to boost revenue by building a World Television Service that competes with CNN, the US cable news network that cleaned up during the Gulf War. He wants to trade on the BBC's name to sell programme 'product' to the proliferating number of broadcasters overseas.

Instead of elaborating on this vision for the BBC and inspiring his staff, however, Mr Birt has closeted himself with management consultants and invented a language that few inside the BBC find sympathetic. His detachment was symbolised by his status as a freelance even after he became Director-General - he joined the staff only in May.

TO DATE, Birtism at the BBC has been about policies tinged with coercion designed to force through cultural change. By and large, the Director General has enjoyed the initiative. Now the BBC and Mr Birt have reached a critical moment and his position is less certain.

In his response to Mark Tully's speech, Mr Birt offered a schizophrenic defence. At the beginning the old Birt, the Birt of 'Birtism', spoke of 'the odd old BBC soldier, sniping at us with their muskets, still telling nostalgic tales of the golden days when no one bothered much about management'. By the end, however, a new Birt, a Birt who seemed shorn of his intellectual armour, even wrestling to break free of his intellectual constructs, had half appeared above the parapet.

The language of the new Birt was halting and pedestrian. 'Join us in the fight to win a new Charter based on the promise of a creative, alert BBC, clear about its programme purposes,' he said.

Cynics could laugh. But his agony - mixed with rage and frustration at what seems to him his vilification - appeared real.

(Photograph omitted)