Leading article: Birtism and the BBC revisited

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The Independent Online

Stirring this labyrinthine organisation into something like revolt was an achievement of a kind and not wholly negative in its effect. The BBC needed greater rigour and accountability, even if change might have been more palatably brought about by someone else.

Lord Birt's legacy at the BBC helps to explain why his MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh television festival - widely regarded as the broadcasting event of the year - was so keenly awaited. The other reason, of course, was his position as "blue skies thinker" at No 10. After a period in which relations between the Prime Minister and the broadcasters have been rocky, Lord Birt's words were bound to be scrutinised for any hint of the direction in which the political wind might be blowing.

If it was fireworks that had been expected, or personal scolding, or a proxy pronouncement from the PM, then Lord Birt's lecture was a disappointment. He complimented the BBC, cast no aspersions on Greg Dyke and publicly buried the hatchet with Michael Grade. He also stressed that he was speaking in a personal capacity. But what came over loud and clear was a policy message, addressed to ministers, as well as to broadcasters: technological change, more than politics, presents public service broadcasters with challenges of a new order - even a broadcaster as revered and professional as the BBC.

Lord Birt, in his inimitable way, sees more competition as one response, intimating that the BBC might have to sacrifice its monopoly on the licence fee. More striking, however, was the faith he expressed in public service broadcasting as a genre, his insistence that the public service remit encompassed areas, such as serious drama and scholarship, that would not necessarily survive in the market, and his firm belief that public service broadcasting had to survive. He may have left a contested legacy at the BBC, but he clearly drew something from that experience as well.

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