Ian Burrell: Appointment marks end of power struggle with Birtists

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The Independent Online

There were smiling faces at the BBC and nods of approval throughout the television industry yesterday but it is safe to assume that Lord Birt's demeanour was even more dour than normal.

For the appointment of Michael Grade as BBC chairman almost certainly marks the final chapter in a bitter power struggle that has divided the corporation for more than a decade.

Camps of Birtists and anti-Birtists emerged, with fundamental ideological differences on how the BBC should be run.

The former styled themselves as radical modernisers. Their opponents saw them as tying the hands of programme-makers and betraying the traditional values of the BBC. Yesterday the dispute was settled in favour of the anti-Birtists.

It was Michael Grade who introduced his former London Weekend Television colleague John Birt to the BBC in May 1987. Six months later Mr Grade had resigned after the pair had a spectacular falling out. "Michael persuaded John to come to the BBC and within a few weeks he was telling Michael what to do," says one former BBC figure who knows both men well. "Michael was never going to put up with that."

Mr Grade, then the BBC's director of television, left to join Channel 4. In his autobiography, It Seemed Like A Good Idea At The Time, he reflected on the "moment that I knew my BBC career was over" when he "pleaded" with Mr Birt, then deputy director general, over a senior appointment.

Mr Birt rose to become director general of the BBC in December 1992, driving through his controversial programme of reforms, introducing measurable objectives and constantly reviewing them in a bid to drive up performance.

But when Lord Birt stood down at the end of the last millennium, the man that emerged to succeed him was an ebullient character who bore more than a passing resemblance to his nemesis Michael Grade.

Greg Dyke was an old colleague of both Lord Birt and Mr Grade from their LWT days. He quickly established himself as the new hero of the anti-Birtists, reversing the changes of his predecessor.

The Birt era appeared to be over until the fateful report by Andrew Gilligan on the Today programme in May last year triggered the Hutton inquiry and the early departure of Dyke.

Lord Birt, now an adviser to the Prime Minister, saw his chance to castigate his successors from Parliament. Rumours began to circulate that he hoped to stage a coup, installing his old friend Lord Burns as the new chairman and his protégé Mark Byford as director general, while he pulled strings from a distance.

That prospect of such a triumvirate was emphatically shattered yesterday as Mr Grade returned triumphantly to Wood Lane.