John Birt and the enemies of the faith

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The Independent Online
MOST of the key sessions at this year's Edinburgh Television Festival were staged in churches. Officially, this was because of the shortage of venues, inevitable in the city during festival August, but it was hard not to see a wider significance. The moods of the television industry's annual conference were, this year, evangelism, martyrdom, crucifixion and loss of faith.

It was from the pulpit of St Cuthbert's that Dennis Potter delivered his widely reported brimstone sermon, identifying (once again) Rupert Murdoch as the devil of television and (more freshly) John Birt, Marmaduke Hussey and the BBC governors as Beelzebub's lieutenants within the temple. The next day, standing at the altar of the Church of St Andrew and St George, under the shadow of a huge crucifix, the director-general himself offered a pretty well silent act of contrition and a scarcely more audible preaching of his creeds.

The first thing to be said about the Potter sermon is that John Birt has recently been lucky with his public enemies. Opponents of the current BBC regime were already uncomfortable at being joined on the barricades by the disc jockey Dave Lee Travis, who presented his departure, aged 48, from the youth station Radio 1 as another significant affront to the corporation's public service mission. Dennis Potter has the weight of a hundred DLTs, but his tendency towards unfocused vitriol and noisy self-examination made his contribution easily swattable by the BBC's damage controllers and ignorable by the wider audience.

One of Potter's favourite - and best - tricks in his plays is that something which appears to be a fact is later revealed to be a dream. But this technique, though startling in drama, is rather more treacherous in lectures. Potter first accused the new management of having ruined the BBC's great traditions but then - the flashback exposed the fantasy - announced that there had never been a Golden Age of television anyway. John Birt was 'alien, hostile . . . a croak-voiced Dalek', yet he was also, Potter lamented, 'so often so unfairly abused'. And this self-cancelling narrative was not the only thing that Potter's lecture had in common with his plays. The playwright sang one passage, devoted 15 minutes to his childhood in the Forest of Dean and spoke of his psoriasis and experience of child abuse.

This was an enthralling performance, but, like Susan Sontag's recent Sarajevo production of Waiting for Godot, it was a flamboyant distraction from the battles rather than a contribution to resolving them. Potter's one coherent proposal - that the BBC should be broken down into small units, funded by various means - was especially bizarre. Given that this is precisely the blueprint of the corporation's enemies, including Potter's favourite demon, Murdoch, it is unclear how we would be able to tell, after the event, whether the BBC had been saved or destroyed.

Potter's vituperative style also gave Birt a lifeline. The playwright had committed the terrible English social sin of Going A Bit Too Far. By the time Birt came to the altar the next day, many of the audience were commending his courage in having even turned up. That it should be regarded as bravery or decency when someone who is paid around pounds 200,000 of public money per year agrees to answer a few questions from his colleagues is a sad comment on what has happened to the concept of accountability.

The director-general and his damage-controllers left Edinburgh yesterday happy, claiming to have won the debate: a contention quite widely supported in media coverage of the festival. It should perhaps be made clear that they had won a debate; ie, one of the sessions at the conference was in the style of a sixth-form discussion between pro-Birt and anti-Birt speakers, which the corporation's team won on a show of hands. Given that any BBC employees wishing to vote against the regime would have had to do so in full view of most of their board of management, the significance of victory should perhaps be played down. A secret ballot would almost certainly have reversed the result.

John Birt and his supporters would be foolish to think that acclamation by a show of hands at a single session of the festival will end the fear, hatred and loss of morale among a large proportion of his staff or the sense of nervy impermanence around his regime. Receptionists at the delegates' hotels were surprised to find on Saturday night a sudden rush of requests for a particular Sunday tabloid in addition to the mainly broadsheet morning orders. This was because of a rumour that the newspaper would print allegations about Birt's private life.

The rumours were false, but the incident was a reminder of the extent to which the sharks still circle. (Two Birt biographies are due next month.) Birt's position is analogous to that of another John in public office - also vastly unpopular, presiding as well over an organisation of sub-zero morale and no faith in the leader - with the single difference that it is far easier to remove a prime minister or party leader than a DG.

Admittedly, Birt also has the advantage over the other beleaguered leader of being surrounded by a talented and attractive cabinet. Critics of the new management culture at the BBC have to acknowledge that it has resulted in a series of imaginative and distinctive appointments: Alan Yentob to BBC 1, Michael Jackson to BBC 2, Charles Denton to Drama, David Liddiment to Entertainment. These appointments are to John Birt's credit. My case against him concerns the likely consequences of his wider policies on the work of what he typically calls 'the corporate talent base'.

The director-general's pet scheme, 'Producer Choice' , which allows programme-makers to buy technical services from outside the BBC, was a commendable attempt to reduce costs. But, after years of trying to teach the nation economics through Peter Jay's Weekend World, John Birt should at least know that you cannot have half- markets, or limited competition. Internal BBC departments, with the overheads of the larger corporation shared between them, are almost bound to be undercut by small outsiders. Unused, they would presumably close down. Certain British ideas - public service broadcasting, national health provision - depended on insulation from the market. To half-strip off this lagging, in pursuit of ideological consistency, is to threaten their point of existence. It has always seemed odd to me that Tory ministers, who resent the licence fee, swan so happily around the subsidised opera houses, available to rather fewer viewers than the BBC. Yet the response of the Secretary of State for National Heritage, Peter Brooke, to the Birt empire's cost-cutting was to leak plans to reduce the licence fee. Take their medicine and they will force more down your throat.

We can already predict government reaction to the Birt idea that the corporation's programming should concentrate on the 'Himalayan peaks' of serious, low-rating television. Ah, ministers will say, as the BBC's audience share falls, how can you justify a licence fee levied on all the public? Why not become a subscription service for Himalayan climbers?