John Birt: the devil and the BBC

Every move he makes outrages the traditionalists. Last week's management restructuring brought more protests. But Mathew Horsman argues he is not quite the demon he seems
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Broadcasting's traditionalists - and they are a multitude - see John Birt, activist Director-General of the BBC, as the Antichrist, the devil himself, the man of mission statements but no mission, the architect of the mighty Beeb's ruin, its fall from Reithian grace.

He stands accused of destroying the soul of the nation's public service broadcaster: of downgrading its commitment to radio; of squandering its 75-year tradition of engineering excellence by proposing to sell off BBC Transmission; of replacing real, honest-to-goodness artists with accountants.

Can it be true? Can the Corporation have fallen into the hands of a cabal of small-minded, market-driven "suits", whose sole purpose is to destroy the BBC because it represents yet another producer monopoly to be sorted out like schools, hospitals and the unions.

What self-styled lover of culture, quality broadcasting and radio programming of the highest order can even begin to disagree with the complaints of the tireless defenders of the BBC's heritage?

Who would not concede that the future of BBC Radio is threatened by the announcement last week of the end of its independent status within the Corporation? Who is not worried about the future of the World Service (English- language), already emasculated by cuts and now to suffer the indignity of answering to a new, "streamlined" management called BBC Production?

Well before last week's radical management restructuring, which will see scheduling and commissioning separated from production for the first time, Mr Birt was already demonised within the organisation as the architect of the much-maligned "producer choice", and the father of 5,000 cuts (being the number of jobs pruned since he arrived in 1992). Producer choice, that quintessentially Birtian innovation, comes in for particular criticism. By allowing producers to choose between internal and external production teams to make programmes, the organisation was meant to be made more efficient. The system required, for the first time, an internal market: prices for the trade of goods and services within the Corporation had to be accounted for properly. Just like the NHS. God help us.

Last week's changes are a second movement on roughly the same theme. Henceforth, BBC Broadcast will be responsible for scheduling and commissioning, while BBC Production makes the programmes. The former will help develop the new services promised for the digital age - including some pay-TV channels themed on public affairs, education and entertainment.

The latter will concentrate on providing the programming consumers want - for the domestic services, of course, but also for those willing to pay extra for subscription services. This is meant to save the BBC brand, to safeguard quality in a multi-channel environment.

And of course the impulse is heavily commercial. The management structure henceforth will look suspiciously like that of Channel 4 and the ITV Network Centre, with a few key mandarins to decide what will go out over the airwaves. This, in Birt's view, makes the Corporation a "broadcasting powerhouse," ready to take on the world.

The two existing controllers, Alan Yentob at BBC1 and Michael Jackson at BBC2 will see their jobs mutate. Will Wyatt, currently head of television, becomes chief executive of BBC Broadcast. Under him, Jackson is likely to become Director of Television. Yentob, for his part, is slated to become director of programming at BBC Production, in a move that may not suit him quite so well as his current, central role in the popular BBC1.

The news and current affairs side of radio is also in line for major changes - not least a wholesale move from Broadcasting House to White City, in west London (although contrary to the Independent's report last week, the rest of the radio operations, including the entertainment programmes, will stay at BH).

The traditionalists hate these changes just as much as they loathed "producer choice". They are just a step towards a "virtual" corporation which commissions and schedules programming but has no real hand in making it. A step, then, towards the complete destruction of the integrated BBC that has been the envy of the world.

So much for the doomsayers' view. To paraphrase 1066 and All That, the traditionalists are "romantic but wrong", while the Birtians are "right but wretched".

For there are uncomfortable truths facing the in a world so quickly transforming itself that standing still is hardly an option. Traditionalists owe it to themselves, if they really want to "save the BBC", to recognise the new broadcasting environment.

It is not a cosy duopoly of the BBC and commercial terrestrial television; it is not a coddled, protected business, where the licence fee comfortably meets all costs. Twenty-five per cent of British homes have cable or satellite, giving them a choice of some 30 channels. That is not to mention Channel 4, which now takes 14 per cent of all commercial advertising revenue, from its standing start in 1981. Or Channel 5, to be launched in 1997. The "minority" services of pay-TV have already eaten into the audience and advertising shares of the mainstream broadcasters.

Consider the fragmented environment we are poised to enter. Rupert Murdoch, the real devil, promises 200 digital channels next year, all available for the cost of a satellite dish and a "set-top box". Cable companies will be able to deliver 150 channels to the home by the end of the decade, promising state-of-the-art Internet connections to boot. The BBC and ITV will launch digital terrestrial services from 1998, with perhaps 18 new services. What on earth will be broadcast on all those new channels?

The Americans are ready with several years' worth of niche programming experience, offering specialist Sci-Fi stuff for the Star Trek set, soft- core sex for the evening shift, 24-hour news, 24-hour weather, even "ambient imagery" - scenes of flickering fireplaces or tranquil lakeside scenes, to supplement the colour schemes of the yuppiest of sitting rooms.

The Corporation has promised its own "digital dividend" once the revolution has reached these shores. Wide-screen BBC1 and BBC2 for a start, and the prospect of a 24-hour news channel, themed entertainment and archive channels, easily accessible plot-lines of our favourite soaps, called up effortlessly from the remote-control pad. John Birt's BBC is not going to play dead.

To respond to the new competitive environment, the organisation needs a modern management structure. It needs to be able to commission the very best programming for radio and television, destined for home and abroad. It needs to make the best use it can of its vaunted news-gathering ability, and if that means merging radio and TV news, then so be it.

The BBC must innovate, or it will die. That is the conclusion even of old hands such as Ian Hargreaves, former editor of the Independent and now editor of the New Statesman. Birt, the devil himself, warns that the BBC must not sit still, stroking its grey beard, as all around it reacts to the new environment.

Its success will be judged not against its enviable history but against its ability to survive in the future. That is why John Birt has pushed through his massive reform package. That is why there needs to be another mammoth management shake-up.

Much of what Birt is doing is driven by one, inescapable truth. A BBC that is but one broadcaster among many does not have a permanent claim on the licence fee. Right now, the Beeb takes in pounds 1.8bn from licence fee payers, and another pounds 300m in revenues from its commercial operations, which include BBC World and BBC Prime, its two international television services.

Can the licence fee be sustained if domestic audience share starts to decline precipitously? The Corporation's own internal estimates suggest that the mainstream broadcasters (roughly, BBC, ITV and Channel 4) will see their share of total television audience drop to perhaps 65 or 70 per cent within 10 years, compared to more than 90 per cent today. Will TV and radio customers continue to support it if that drop occurs?

Birt insists that the Beeb has a bright future as a public service broadcaster, but only if it grasps the digital future with both hands, remakes its corporate structure and competes aggressively with rivals. A hidebound, old-fashioned organisation can do none of these things, and would merely fade into obscurity.

Even with Birt's brave new management structure, the odds must be against the survival of a universal, compulsory licence fee. The BBC will have to compete for viewers just as any broadcaster must. A far-sighted government might concede the point and allow the Corporation to enter the private sector with honour, competing for the support of customers day by day. The Deputy Prime Minister, Michael Heseltine, has suggested the marriage of BT and the BBC, the country's best carrier and the its best content provider.

Whatever the outcome, reforms look inevitable. One might not like the specifics - must radio be so sidelined? Must there be a downgrading of production next to scheduling and commissioning? Does it really make sense to merge radio and TV news? - but the impulse is clearly right. If we are to have an open broadcasting environment, which even Labour seems to support, then we must have a reforming, mutating BBC.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Birt has become just a target of venom, such a hated destroyer of all that is good. He might be less maligned were he graced with a more attractive personality - less aloof, less of a suit (even if Armani in provenance). But we ought not to slay the messenger just because we do not like the message. If we are to have a digital revolution (and can we stop it?) then we must have a reformed BBC. If we are to save anything of the BBC we love (the quality, the variety, the reputation, the reliability), we must accept change.

Birtism is not the only way forward, but it is the only realistic strategy on offer so far. So is John Birt the devil? Hardly.