Leading article: Birt: the Ian Beale of broadcasting

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Canteen Assistants Required

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join the UK's Frozen...

Recruitment Genius: Facilities & Operational Administrator

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting position has risen ...

Ashdown Group: Sales Support - Buckinghamshire - £25,000

£20000 - £25000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Internal Sales Executive ...

Recruitment Genius: Field Smart Meter Engineer - Gas and Electric - Dual Fuel

£28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises in the installa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Two out of five marriages end in divorce but filling in the paperwork wrong can prove very costly  

Divorce is bad enough without the legal process around it making it so much worse

Simon Kelner
 

What Lord Myners tells us about the Royal Mail sell-off shows just how good the City is at looking after itself

Chris Blackhurst
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum