Birt: The quiet technocrat who sent fear through BBC

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Indy Politics

Whitehall, get ready. If you think you've seen it all before, that governments come in with clever-dick ideas only for you to make them see sense and for the Civil Service to carry on as before, be afraid.

Something truly dreadful is about to happen to you. If you want to know what that thing is, find a BBC journalist – any BBC journalist, save the handful who made it big in the last decade (chances are they won't fraternise with humble mandarins anyway) – and ask them.

Say "what's John Birt like?" and see what they do. Chances are, they will grimace, put their hands to their throats in mock strangulation and groan loudly. That's if they're being polite. Some might say some very rude words. If they ask why you want to know and you tell them, their venom may be replaced by laughter or sympathy for your plight.

After a while, a grim reality may dawn: you're a civil servant, Lord Birt is in effect your boss, in charge of cutting red tape and responsible for advising Tony Blair on "delivery" – the buzz word that drove him to power for a second time. Oh, my God ... he's running the country.

For a quiet, mumbling, not saying boo-to-a-goose kind of character, Birt inspires the most violent of reactions. He has not killed anyone (although doubtless several BBC people will claim his methods sent former colleagues to early graves), he does not steal, he does not throw objects at people, he has not broken the law. His friends say he is a good guy, generous (he certainly throws lavish parties), loyal, amusing in a witty, intellectual sort of way, concerned about the way society is heading, anxious to make a contribution for the better.

Unfortunately, the hostility is not confined to those at the BBC, which he ran as director-general for eight years. To a large section of the population, Birt has come to represent much of what is wrong with British management. They see him as a robot (he can't help being tall and thin and grey with glasses), as a stifler of enterprise, a technocrat, not a creator. Worse, they see him as a carpet-bagger, a member of the boss class who did not practise what he preached. While he was moaning about how hard up the BBC was, he was doing very well, thank you, by working as a freelance rather than a staff member to avoid paying tax. He was setting off all sorts of items against tax and behaving in a way that was well beyond the ken of the ordinary person. Many people, although not those he had promoted to prominence within the Beeb, were outraged.

BBC employees, used to being squeezed on pay, and understanding, albeit reluctantly, that they worked not for the money but to be part of the mission to explain, were furious. Birt's behaviour was a snub, a slap in the face to all those who toiled long and hard but could not claim their suits or other items against tax.

He did not need the money, of course. That was the joke. It was the arrogance that got to people. I remember when I was first tipped off that Birt, the BBC director-general, was being paid as a freelance. My response, which was the same as that of most people when they read the subsequent story, was not to believe it. But a quick check in Companies House showed it was true: he had his own company, John Birt Productions, and its main source of income was a fee he charged the BBC for his services.

Birt was badly advised. His accountant did not need to make the sort of declaration he had made on the company documents, listing the suits, the car, the theatre tickets and the rest against tax. It is a moot point: whether, but for the sloppiness of his accountant, Birt's arrangement would ever have seen the light of day.

Certainly, Birt himself did not want it revealed. After repeated phone calls that got nowhere, I went to his house in south-west London. It was a Saturday morning. The BBC chief came to the door. I told him who I was and said I wanted to ask him about his company, John Birt Productions. He said he did not talk to journalists at his home and pushed the door, not hard but firmly, against my foot, which was over the threshold. It was bizarre: the head of the BBC saying he did not speak to journalists at his house and gradually crushing the foot of one.

But that is Birt. Detached, aloof, not one of us. That is why he was so unpopular at the BBC, prompting Michael Grade to moan that he took the fun away from the place, Dennis Potter, the corporation's star playwright, to call him a Dalek, and others to label him "Pol Pot" and "Stalinist".

He had an obsession with consultants and meetings and memos. All day long, all the time. His successor, Greg Dyke, once a friend and admirer but seemingly less so once he discovered the horror of what he inherited, has issued edicts banning the "three Cs" – cars, consultants and croissants.

Mr Dyke has cut a swathe through the BBC's budget, removing millions earmarked for its army of consultants and advisers. Under Birt, staff complained of being suffocated – by geek speak, by initiative after initiative, by men and women in suits with clipboards checking on what they were doing.

Some of it had to happen. The BBC was a bloated organisation trying to ride two horses: making decent programmes to keep us all sweet and at the same time trying to compete with the new, thrusting media barons. Birt took it into the digital age, launching News 24 and other channels. He forced programme-makers to question whether they were getting value for money through "Producer Choice", creating open competition for specialist services. He cut thousands of staff (and employed countless consultants in their place) and he concentrated news in one centre, in West London (a policy Mr Dyke has reversed to internal acclaim).

He managed to secure for the BBC, the liberal leftie organisation so despised by the Tory government, a renewal of its charter. And that was some achievement.

It was not so much what he did but the manner in which he did it. There is logic in Mr Blair's madness – but it is madness nonetheless. Just ask someone at the BBC.

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