Leading Article: Dangers of the Birt era

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THERE are many similarities between the BBC and the NHS. Both are cherished institutions that in the Eighties were seen to have become overstaffed and grossly inefficient in their use of taxpayers' (or licence-payers') money. Within both organisations nobody had any idea of what individual operations cost, even though each was over-endowed with bureaucrats. The remedy prescribed was the introduction of a form of internal market.

In the NHS, Kenneth Clarke, then Secretary of State for Health, was the agent of change. His reforms included the creation of self-governing hospital trusts and fund-holding GPs. At the BBC, it was John Birt. The most profound of the reforms he introduced was called producer choice, which enables producers to shop around outside the BBC if they believe outside facilities to be cheaper. So all operations within the BBC, as in the NHS, must be priced. The result in both cases: more expensive executives to implement reforms, fresh layers of bureaucracy, a flurry of contracts, and widespread resentment.

Yesterday's courageous speech in Birmingham by the BBC's veteran New Delhi correspondent, Mark Tully, raised important questions. Running through all he said was his fear that too many of the values which made the BBC great are being unnecessarily sacrified in the name of greater efficiency. Mr Tully himself symbolises some of those strengths. He is a free spirit, a man of courage and character with a deep love and knowledge of his subject, respected and even venerated in the country on which he has long reported.

Few of the corporation's employees would deny that reform was needed; or that Mr Birt has considerably raised the quality of the BBC's news reporting; or that some of his ideas are inherently sound. The anxieties that Mr Tully has articulated concern means rather than ends. He may have exaggerated the fear factor and the extent of the personality cult being fostered around the director- general. But it is not in doubt that morale at the BBC is desperately low and that many producers feel severely harassed by the demands and pressures of the Birt era, to an extent liable ultimately to damage their work.

At the heart of this crisis of confidence is Mr Birt's personality. He is dominant yet not very articulate. Intensely admired by senior colleagues to whom his abilities seem transparently evident, he is not good at selling his ideas to a wider audience within the BBC. To those nurtured on a looser concept of the corporation, he comes across as a centralising ideologue. All in all, he is a disquieting figure: someone who has made everyone think about where the BBC should go, yet has carried his organisation only reluctantly with him.

By any managerial standards, that is a failure. Among his mistakes - preserving his status as a private company after taking over as DG was the biggest - has been to be too closely identified with doctrinaire managerial changes. It might have been wiser to delegate these to an able deputy, leaving Mr Birt freer to concentrate on the BBC's future and on how it can justify the licence fee and assure the renewal of its charter in 1996. Ultimately, it is by the quality and success of its programmes that the Birt era will be judged. If too many frustrated and unhappy creative spirits are driven out, that judgement is likely to be adverse.