In this brave new dawn, then, what inspiration are we promised from the Birtist BBC? We are promised . . . best-practice reviews, productivity targeting, overhead initiatives, discrete business units, mutually agreed strategies, bi-media co-operation - in other words (or, unhappily, not in other words) a BBC where corporate gobbledygook rules.
It is ironic that an organisation that regularly broadcasts some of the finest pearls of the English language should, when trying to explain itself, use the jargon of a sub-standard company report and accounts. 'From April,' said Mr Birt, 'we need to complete some of the overhead initiatives already under way, to start a programme of market testing of support services . . . to initiate a review of best practice in working methods inside and outside the BBC, and subsequently to start building productivity targets - based on best practice - into directorate and individual objectives.'
Beebspeak is a comparative newcomer to the range of verbal detritus that spews from British institutions. Bred from the half-digested nostrums of the business schools and the self-important hype of the public-relations industry, it probably has its origins in the corporation's recent troubled history.
Once, the BBC governed itself with precious little regard to anyone else's opinions, and communicated with the public only by way of an annual report packed with pictures of Morecambe and Wise and the names and rankings of all 92 members of the Advisory Committees for Scotland. Then came the Thatcherite assault. It took only a few high-level sackings to convince the BBC that it had to reach out to the people and to start talking the language of the market economy - the only language its most powerful critics understood.
Accounting and accountability became the watchwords. When a new Director-General (symbolically, an accountant) was appointed in 1987, he and the Chairman of the Governors went on television to talk about programme reviews, efficient use of resources and producer choice. And when senior executives spoke in public, they adopted this strange new language. The same portentous buzzwords and phrases crop up all over the place. 'The BBC must ****** the national debate' is a common sentiment, with only the active verb varying: inform, support, enable, guarantee, enhance are among options suggested by Mr Birt and his closest disciples.
A common stylistic gimmick is conjunctionitis. Words that describe the qualities the BBC seeks to foster are thought to carry more resonance in pairs, linked by 'and'. The technique is most effective when linking two words with nearly identical meanings. Tony Hall, Director of News and Current Affairs, told the Royal Television Society in October about the values he sought in BBC journalism: 'accurate and truthful . . . impartial and objective . . . diversity and originality . . . richness and originality . . . distinctive and fascinating'.
The above are all buzzwords in themselves and may be used in Beebspeak in a variety of combinations. The effect of putting them in pairs is to give the speech a remorseless, soporific rhythm, like waves rolling on to a beach.
After Mr Hall, the most practised exponent is Will Wyatt, Managing Director of Television. In a series of awe-inspiring yet opaque declarations of his philosophy at the beginning of last year, he spoke of 'range and excellence . . . values and distinctiveness . . . scale and ambition . . . comprehensiveness and prestige . . . openness and teamwork'.
Mr Wyatt is strong, too, on the science of bafflement by obfuscation. In a pamphlet for staff, A Better Way of Working, he described his aims as 'clarifying roles and accountabilities . . . evaluating more effectively the performance of programmes, resources and support services' and much else. Comparatively little has been heard from him, though, since the discovery of a pounds 58m overspend in his department, for which accountabilities as yet remain to be clarified.
What the BBC needs is not 'an outward-looking audience-centred perspective', the optically challenging formula proposed by Mr Birt last week, nor a Director of Finance and Information Technology (DFIT) and a Managing Director of Resources, Engineering and Services (MDRES), two new posts he has created. It needs a period of radio silence while it finds itself a scriptwriter who can communicate in the language of real people.
From now on, BBC speeches must be modest and unpompous, elegant and stylish, mould-breaking and iconoclastic, simple and uncomplicated; over and out.Reuse content