Leading article: Birt: the Ian Beale of broadcasting

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The Independent Online
WITNESSING the spectacle of Rupert Murdoch and John Birt argue about the future of British broadcasting is rather like watching EastEnders' Cindy and Ian Beale argue about the custody of their children. A precious future is being torn between two utterly different figures. Like Ian Beale, John Birt can sound a little compromising. But, like Ian's chip shop in Albert Square, he also represents a sort of "establishment" at Broadcasting House in Portland Square. For the glamorous "outsider" figure with a colourful past and predatory instincts we find Rupert's qualities an almost exact fit for those of Cindy Beale. Whilst Rupert Murdoch has never, to our knowledge, tried to arrange to have John Birt assassinated, no-one should be in any doubt about the ferocity of this battle. Like the fictional Walford Family Court, then, we have to weigh their claims to the future of broadcasting very carefully. There are two important issues to be considered at the bar of public opinion. Let us sum up.

First, diversity. Mr Murdoch puts in a strong claim: "the next generation will wonder at our obsession with the death of 'pluralism and diversity' when they are actually endemic in this brave new world of media". True, at first glance, the only thing that seems to be endemic at the moment is Carol Vorderman. Terrestrial broadcasters perhaps need to be reminded that being able to catch her (or Anthea Turner or Jill Dando) simultaneously on four channels of an afternoon does not constitute diversity. They also need to be warned off the kind of "genre-abuse" we have witnessed with the recent explosion of people-documentaries, news quizzes and costume dramas. But we still suspect that the root of diversity, innovation, would not be there at all were it not for the large, well- funded public service-oriented BBC.

And, should there be any doubt, audiences do want to see home-grown diversity. The days have gone when schedulers could screen Dallas and the Columbo at peak times. The market is fragmenting, with the size of the highest viewing figures shrinking. From Monty Python to The Day Today to the Teletubbies the BBC has been unafraid of innovation. Without the support given by Radio 1, much of what we now take for granted in Cool Britannia, bands like Oasis, would not exist. Mr Murdoch has, of course, brought 24-hour news to Britain and his channels regularly run minority sports. But he has also acknowledged the need for BSkyB to produce more original home- grown programming. He is not there yet.

Second, John Birt is right to identify the danger of digital and pay- TV resulting in the creation of a "knowledge underclass". Mr Murdoch said that he thinks this is a "very shaky" claim: "With the burgeoning of free radio, television and the Internet this has to be wrong". However, the man who charges subscribers to Sky-TV in the region of pounds 30 per month has a bit of a cheek. But Mr Birt needs to reminded of the apparent abandonment of his teenage children, the "mission to explain" and the campaign to end the "bias against understanding" in television news. The absence from our TV guides of anything that approaches the combination of analysis and sublimely impressive unwatchability that was his own dear Weekend World needs to be explained. If Mr Birt is to get custody then he needs to answer some hard questions about the whereabouts of current affairs.

So, just as Cindy Beale makes Ian Beale look relatively wholesome so Rupert Murdoch's characterisation of John Birt as the patron saint of public service "elitist" broadcasting has probably done him an enormous favour. It is not so long ago that John Birt was being demonised, mostly by his own colleagues and ex-colleagues, for "destroying" the BBC. He may not, indeed, be a perfect parent. Few of us are. But, above all, there's something we just don't trust about that Cindy.