Do Birt's links to No 10 pose threat to the BBC?

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Indy Politics

It took Lord Birt a week to make his first public comment on Lord Hutton's damning critique of the BBC's conduct during the Gilligan affair.

But Wednesday's attack on the reporter's "slipshod journalism" was well worth waiting for. It has only fuelled the view that Greg Dyke's predecessor as director general has continued to exert a powerful influence on the corporation in the four years since his departure.

The suspicion is that Lord Birt, conveniently positioned at No. 10 as a policy strategist, will have the power to replace Mr Dyke with a regime more in keeping with his own time at the corporation's helm.

After all, the favourite to succeed Greg Dyke is one of Lord Birt's most shining protégés, Mark Byford, the acting director general.

Mr Byford is best known at the BBC as being Lord Birt's No. 2 during the 1990s when programmes were judged in terms of how successfully they could compete in the corporation's internal market place. Not for nothing was he known in Lord Birt's time as "His Majesty's Voice".

Mr Byford's unquestioning loyalty to his master and the new corporate BBC was rewarded with his appointment as head of the BBC World Service and, later, Lord Birt's nomination as his successor when he stepped down in 1999.

Mr Byford, 45, and the father of five children, was beaten to the job by Greg Dyke who set about reversing many of Lord Birt's reforms in an effort to establish his own authority.

But now the meltdown at the BBC in the aftermath of Lord Hutton's report has opened the door for Mr Byford and his former mentor. Integral to the succession will be the appointment of the new BBC chairman after last week's resignation of Gavyn Davies.

The man tipped for that job is former civil servant Terry Burns, now Lord Burns and chairman of the Abbey National. He, too, has close ties with Lord Birt.

But the Government is anxious to head off accusations that it will exploit the Hutton report by imposing a more Government-friendly leadership on the BBC. Accordingly, the Commissioner for Public Appointments has been asked to handle the appointment.

Since leaving the BBC, Lord Birt has been the Government's "blue skies thinker-in-chief" and has already dreamt up policy ideas for improving the transport systems and new ways of fighting crime.

But his interest in the BBC and his desire to reverse the legacy of the Dyke years remain undimmed. An alliance of Mr Byford and Mr Burns, with the former director general pulling the strings from the sidelines, would be the instrument for him to achieve his end.

More evidence of No. 10's alleged influence on events came in December with a speech by Caroline Thomson, the corporation's director of policy and legal affairs.

In remarks considered by many to be somewhat lacking in loyalty, she refused to rule out the possibility that high-profile heads would roll if Hutton ruled against the BBC. Ms Thomson, it so happens, is married to Roger Liddle, another of Blair's policy adviser.

Mr Byford, whose trademark soundbite after Lord Hutton reported was "we must accept Lord Hutton has published his report", has begun to show a little more personality.

Perhaps conscious of his "Birtist" reputation, in one interview this week he said: "I love Greg," adding, "I think that's what people feel when they work closely with him." He says his reputation does not necessarily reflect his vision for the BBC.

But distancing himself from Birtism is vital for Mr Byford if he wants to win over a BBC workforce that looks back on the former director general's rule with anything but relish.

Mr Dyke, by contrast, pleased staff by scrapping Mr Birt's internal market, which had been similar to the Tories' "purchaser-provider" split in the NHS. That contributed to cutting the cost of running the organisation from 24 per cent of its income, when Mr Dyke arrived, to 15 per cent.

Mr Byford knows he must also silence his critics.

After Mr Birt made him head of the BBC World Service, John Tusa, another former World Service head, said: "The fact is that the BBC has appointed to the most senior post in the nation's voice to the world, a domestic broadcasting manager who has no knowledge or experience of the World Service, no understanding of its complexities, no sense of what constitutes international journalism or broadcasting, either at home or abroad."

Similar resistance to Mr Byford's appointment may only be overcome by having friends in high places.

THE CORPORATION'S GOVERNORS

LORD RYDER OF WENSUM

Acting Chairman

Former vice-chairman; served as chief whip to John Major's government. Led the group that ousted Greg Dyke.

SIR ROBERT SMITH

National Governor for Scotland

Chairs Broadcasting Council for Scotland.Non-executive director at Network Rail and Railtrack. Lobbied for Greg Dyke.

PROFESSOR FABIAN MONDS

National governor for Northern Ireland

Chairman of the economic development agency Invest Northern Ireland. Lobbied for Dyke.

PROFESSOR MERFYN JONES

National Governor for Wales

Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Wales. Won BAFTA Cymru award for contribution to history on television.

RANJIT SONDHI

Chairman of English National Forum

A senior lecturer at Birmingham University in race and ethnic studies. He is also a trustee of the National Gallery.

DAME PAULINE NEVILLE-JONES

BBC international governor

Has served on the Joint Intelligence Committee and was political director at the Foreign Office.

DEBORAH BULL

At 40 the youngest governor, she was appointed last year after a 20-year career in the Royal Ballet. She has been an Arts Council England member since 1998.

DERMOT GLEESON

Former head of home affairs section of the Conservative Research Department. From 1977 to 1979 was a member of the EC cabinet. Lobbied for Greg Dyke.

BARONESS HOGG

Experienced economist who was head of the Prime Minister's policy unit under John Major. Lobbied for Greg Dyke. Her BBC term ends next month.

ANGELA SARKIS

She is an independent consultant to a number of voluntary organisations and charitable trusts; also a member of a number of government committees.

DAME RUTH DEECH

Barrister and former law lecturer, who leads recruitment activities at Oxford University. From 1994 to 2002, was chair of Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.

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