The Broadcasting Debate: Fear rules under Birt's revolution, Tully says: BBC reassesses its public service role as independent network seeks a more up-market audience

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The Independent Online
MARK TULLY, the veteran BBC correspondent in India, yesterday launched an outspoken attack on John Birt, the director-general, and his management style at the Radio Academy Festival in Birmingham.

'What is taking place at the BBC is a revolution,' he said. Mr Birt's name was mentioned so often by BBC managers 'that many of the staff feel that there is some sort of Big Brother watching them'.

Emphasising that he did not intend to mount a personal attack, Mr Tully accused Mr Birt of being ignorant of what the BBC was or what it should become. He said: 'Personality cults and too much power in one person's hands always weaken organisations . . . in the corporation today there are too many managers who appear to be saying John Birt is the BBC and the BBC is John Birt.

'An iron structure has been set in place in news and current affairs to make sure that producers do not have freedom, that they conform to what has come to be known as 'Birtism'. It is editorial centralisation, but then every revolution leads to the concentration of power or to chaos.'

Speaking of the reluctance of staff to speak out openly on these matters, Mr Tully said: 'Fear is more constricting than any BBC bureaucracy has ever been. In a large and complicated organisation, it puts a high premium on sycophancy and virtually rules out healthy criticism of the management . . . The present management places no premium on genuine loyalty, only on the sort of loyalty which does not rock the boat.'

There was loud applause when Mr Tully finished and a few enthusiasts tried without success to lead a standing ovation. Speaking to reporters afterwards, Mr Tully emphasised that the target of his attack was not Mr Birt but 'Birtism'.

He said that two 'pretty senior members of management' had privately congratulated him on his remarks. He has written to Mr Birt and to Marmaduke Hussey, the chairman of the governors, offering to meet them to discuss his criticisms.

The BBC had its defence ready because Mr Tully's speech, made at the opening of the two-day festival, had been leaked to the Independent on Sunday two days earlier. Executives rallied to Mr Birt's defence.

Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC Radio, said: 'I disagree with Mark about the context in which the BBC is approaching its next charter and I disagree with a lot of his analysis about how we're going to get to where we want to be. I didn't come to the BBC to shake it up in some mad management thing.'

Ms Forgan admitted it had been a 'pretty chastening experience to sit there and hear Mark say those things about the sort of BBC I am involved and believe in'. She knew people had been made 'very miserable and upset' by the changes, but said: 'I hope there will not be a divorce between Mark Tully's BBC and the BBC of the future. They are the same thing.'

David Hatch, Mr Birt's special adviser, conceded that management was at fault in not talking to the staff frankly enough at a time of change and instability. That would be remedied. 'I agree with the kind of BBC Mark wants to see but I disagree that we are getting there by the wrong route. I don't think he understands why the route has to be the way it is.'

The BBC under Birt, page 19

Leading article, page 21

(Photograph omitted)