Profile: John Birt: Out to save the BBC - and he might

Crises don't bother him, nor does his unpopularity with staff. The DG is pursuing his own agenda. By Godfrey Hodgson
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THE LATEST FOOLISH list of the "most powerful people in Britain", offered by Channel 4 and the Observer, lists Sir John Birt, who has been director-general of the BBC for the past six years, as the 16th most powerful person, and the third most powerful broadcaster, ahead of Lord Hollick, but behind Rupert Murdoch and even Gerry Robinson of Granada.

This judgement is either absurdly uncomprehending or remarkably subtle. Such lists, for a start, habitually confuse "power" with "influence". Perhaps, too, this one is trying to make a subtle point: that a Murdoch or a Robinson is freer to do as he pleases, whereas a director-general of the BBC is constrained by chairman, board of governors, board of management, ultimately by the Home Secretary, the charter, the licence and agreement, and by uncle Tom Cobley and all.

By any common-sense measure, though, Birt is certainly one of the most influential, and the most powerful, people in the country. He presides over an organisation with a far larger share of television and radio than ever Murdoch is likely to have, and with an even greater weight in the worlds of politics, high culture, popular culture, classical music, local news, education, religion and everything else that people in Britain live by than Murdoch would ever want to be burdened by.

This has not been a wonderful time for BBC management. They lost the cricket to Channel 4. A Blue Peter presenter was caught sniffing cocaine. Several thousand news employees went on strike - in part because Birt's salary has been growing at twice the rate of the journalists'. Star performers drift off to other channels and, to cap it all, a memo leaks ordering journalists not to mention Peter Mandelson's private life.

Any garden-variety television executive would greet each such day with apprehension and respond to every successive crisis with a despairing, "That's all I need!". But not Birt. These darts bounce from his hide almost unnoticed, because his eyes are on more distant horizons. His mind is on saving the BBC, no less, and many would say that, like the American artillery officer in Vietnam, in order to save the place, it has been necessary to destroy it. A fairer judgement is that in his thoughtful, authoritarian but ultimately shrewd way he has made as good a fist as could be made of saving what was worth saving from an institution in crisis.

John Birt came out of Liverpool at the only moment this century when it was a good place to be from: he was a contemporary of the Beatles, and still identifies with pop music and the Liverpool renaissance. Like many other ambitious young men in a society more concerned with the symbols than the substance of class, the young Birt portrayed himself as coming from Liverpool's working-class. He did, but after skipping a generation: his father was a successful executive in a tyre company.

After an excellent education at the hands of the Christian Brothers, Birt read engineering at Oxford, but spent much of his time making a film, a sentimental idyll in the Sixties idiom. He got a job at Granada Television where, in a crucial episode, he was sent off to "expose" David Frost for something or other, and returned, like St Paul from Damascus, with his mind changed.

The decisive encounter in his career came when he teamed up, at the London Weekend Television current affairs programme Weekend World, with Peter Jay. Son of a Labour cabinet minister and a mother who was a power in the old London County Council, Jay had a politician's suspicion of journalism in general and investigative journalism in particular. At Weekend World, he and his editor, Birt, worked out a new style of television journalism. It was friendly to power, willing to be boring, serious and analytical. It put film and pictures in second place to logical arguments, and often forced interviews to fit a preset mould. Its ethos, launched by Birt and Jay (or Jay and Birt?) in a number of articles, was that television journalism has a bias against understanding, a bias which must be corrected.

By the mid-Eighties, as Jay moved off to be Her Majesty's ambassador in Washington, then chief of staff to the grotesque Robert Maxwell, Birt moved quietly up the executive ladder at LWT. His style was untypical in the television industry. In personal relations he was approachable, given to Sixties affectations like wearing a French baker's jacket and to the amiable habit of kicking a football about in the lunch hour with researchers.

It has been said that he is a good friend and a bad boss. As an executive he was authoritarian. He kept his door shut and was to be seen only by appointment. It was said, perhaps apocryphally but in any case revealingly, that, to discourage frivolous proposals, he would entertain programme ideas only if they had 17 points to them, not 16 or 18.

While Birt progressed at LWT, the BBC was increasingly hitting trouble. Arithmetically its audience could only decline with the arrival of satellite and cable channels. Its hierarchical, unionised structure was out of sync with the cost-cutting, free market spirit of the age. It was the butt of hysterical attacks from right-wing propagandists such as Paul Johnson and from the papers owned by its broadcasting rival, Murdoch. Above all it was hated by Margaret Thatcher and her party chairman, Lord Tebbit. After a series of political rows, the director-general, Alasdair Milne, was forced out, and Thatcher made it plain that she meant to bring what she saw as a left-leaning, extravagant state enterprise to heel.

This was the situation when Birt arrived at the BBC, first as deputy to Sir Michael Checkland, then, from 1992, as director-general. From the start, he inspired an extraordinary degree of hostility, in part because he made BBC staff afraid for their jobs, but also because he seemed not to understand their ethos. He was also seen as a Thatcherite, quite wrongly: his personal political allegiance has always been to the Labour Party.

Malicious stories, some true, circulated about what were seen as his insensitivity and arrogance. At one executive meeting he was said to have insisted that everyone tell a joke, and then marked them for their presentation. In private Birt has a sense of humour, often aimed at himself, but, because his job is enormous and his management style aloof, few saw that. He also has a temper, usually under control, but which, with his physical bulk and sharp mind, can make him intimidating.

He has always been unusually single-minded. Almost his only recreation is walking the mountains around the Welsh cottage where he and his wife, Ann, an American-born painter, go as often as they can.

As soon as he arrived at the BBC he launched into a series of managerial changes that shook the institution from top to bottom. More than 10 years later, he is still at it. This is permanent revolution. Some of the change appears to have slavishly imitated American corporate fads. Birt introduced an "internal market", for example, which made producers shop around for the cheapest supplier, even within the organisation. There were the inevitable stories that producers found it easier to go down the road to EMI and buy tapes and CDs rather than use the world's richest sound and video archive.

Very early on Birt grasped a huge nettle by merging "news" and "current affairs", then bitter rivals. That was necessary. But in the process Birt made enemies of some of the ablest and most influential journalists in the land.

He was determined to bring the BBC into the new world created by technological innovations, especially digitilisation. He was also aware that the BBC must create new sources of revenue because increases in the licence fee would be essentially tied to the rate of inflation. So he launched BBC World Service TV, then a 24-hour news service and new digital terrestrial channels. He reorganised the corporate structure into functional units, some said as a preparation for privatising the peripheral provinces of the sprawling empire. New, vaguely populist ventures such as Radio Five Live were started, as part of an effort to make the BBC less vulnerable to charges, confirmed by research, that it was seen as elitist.

By July 1994 Birt's efforts at improving internal efficiency and external relations were crowned with a major victory: the royal charter was renewed. The triumph was not, however, achieved without grief. In 1993 Birt's personal position was shaken by what was called "Armanigate", and he nearly had to resign. This newspaper revealed that the BBC's director-general, for tax reasons, was not an employee. Revelations about his expense account, including his taste for expensive suits, forced him to go on staff. (Since then his salary has risen so as to more than compensate him financially.) In spite of the emphasis on managerialism and managerial jargon, management seemed shaky. An expensive new computer system for the newsrooms, bought from Associated Press, has a disconcerting habit of crashing.

Yet Birt has launched the BBC's digital channels. And it looks as if he may succeed in getting Parliament to give him the increase in the licence fee that he has asked for to pay for them.

Birt remains unpopular to an almost mythic degree within the organisation. A 1996 survey found that 97 per cent of the staff were unhappy about the way the BBC was being managed. But it is undeniable that he has saved the essence of the BBC for at least another generation.

In spite of the rigours and the not infrequent absurdities of his iron rule, he has beaten off Thatcher's dangerous attempt to crush the BBC's independence. He has put the corporation in a situation that should prove financially viable. Under his regime the BBC has held on to a far larger market share than it was fashionable to predict five years ago. And when he leaves, his successors will be in a position to compete in a global broadcasting market - if they want to, and if they can match his formidable single-mindedness and determination.