What's on after the Birt Show?

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The Independent Online
Blood is trickling from that famous Armani suit. John Birt is a strong and self-confident man, and he swims on, head up, a smile fixed firmly on his face. But the sharks are circling. A former director-general of the BBC, Alasdair Milne, denounces his behaviour as monstrous. Senior managers think he cannot survive. Anonymous governors say they are moving against him. Marmaduke Hussey, the chairman, and Mr Birt's great champion, may be vulnerable himself.

Mr Birt's supporters believe that here, in the making, is a very British tale, about a big man being downed by the tiniest of peccadilloes. A victory for the second-rate and envious is round the corner, they say. Mr Birt's detractors, who seem to be rather more numerous, see a story of ill- judgement and hubris on an epic scale.

Everyone seems to see great themes here, far beyond the tax habits of top television people. John Birt is one of those people who has made himself, and thus his fate, inescapably symbolic. If he quits, it will be tempting to recall the fall of Margaret Thatcher; another anti-establishment leader assaulting Old Britain from within, another Eighties visionary who had no reservoir of personal affection to draw on when the going got rough.

Mr Birt may be a stylish figure whose views on many things Baroness Thatcher would abhor, but his agenda of competitive tendering, choice, the internal market, cost-cutting and rigorously defined goals was truly Thatcherite. She was hardly an enthusiast for tax avoidance, but in Mr Birt's personal affairs many people will see an echo of the sharp- edged City mores of the Eighties.

Mr Birt would leave behind him a small cadre of loyal supporters, mostly former commercial television people, who believed in his management revolution. These self-styled 'Birtists' must be feeling a little nervous and isolated this weekend - some of them will feel as betrayed and bitter as the last of the true Thatcherites in the Conservative Party. As in the Tory party in the winter of 1990, the BBC's hitherto silent dissidents are stretching themselves and starting to whistle. Dare they hope that the cultural revolution is over?

There are rich pickings for symbolists everywhere. Inside the BBC, many managers certainly feel that the controversy has a wider resonance. One told me yesterday: 'I think that John's desire to keep his mobility by not being a member of staff, that he didn't understand the point about loyalty to the institution of the BBC, says a lot about the culture he came from. It was a very Eighties sort of thing, and I think things are generally on the turn against that sort of culture.'

The truth, inevitably, is more complicated. The same manager, and many more throughout the BBC, will speak with enthusiasm about the management changes Mr Birt has introduced. The handing-down of control of budgets to programme-makers and the new freedom it has given them reflects the best management practice in private enterprise and in reform-minded governments. It works. Many of the brightest and most adventurous programme-makers like it, whatever they think of Mr Birt.

The old BBC, with its command structure redolent of the pre-Thatcher Civil Service or the Imperial Russian Fleet, desperately needed reform. No insider could have done it: to that extent, the cultural clash between the outsider-Birtists and the old hands was inevitable.

Not that everything about Mr Birt has been revolutionary. In some ways, he has been an inspired conservative. His emphasis on the news and current affairs work of the BBC, and his readiness to throw overboard some of the tackier game shows, sit well with the BBC's most traditionally high-minded image of itself. Like Lord Reith, the BBC's greatest director-general, who held sway in the Thirties, Mr Birt thinks the organisation's duty to preserve serious public debate, however ponderous, is more important than its entertainment function.

Lord Reith, of course, was no proto- Birt. He would have curled his Presbyterian lip at American management-babble. He would not have been seen dead in threads by Giorgio Armani, still less tried to avoid paying tax. (Can you imagine the accounts for John Reith plc? 'Uncomfortably hard chair for Self, one shilling . . . Bible for the use of politicians visiting my office, two shillings . . . omnibus ticket . . .')

But the Reith-wraith has a message about the Birt affair, none the less. Like Mr Birt, he led from the front. Like Mr Birt, he was happy to become the human embodiment of the Corporation. But Reith, though quite a commercially minded gentleman who sat on many private-sector boards and was responsible for one big airline merger, had a degree of personal seriousness and rectitude, considered eccentric by some, that underlined his public message about the moral mission of the BBC.

Mr Birt's immediate problem is the difficulty of carrying out a high-minded and radical crusade unless you are a high- minded radical. The embarrassment about his tax affairs is an embarrassment for the whole of the Birtist BBC. It is not simply a matter of a private misjudgement; it is a question of how that affects his public programme of BBC reforms.

Those reforms are, at the end of the day, what really count. They count more than all the symbolism. Some of them are too advanced to be reversed now, even if Mr Birt does go - rather as the fall of Lady Thatcher did not lead to privatised companies being nationalised. Many senior levels of the BBC are staffed by people who, whatever they think of Mr Birt himself, have been affected by his views. That would still be true whether he was replaced by an outsider, such as Michael Grade or Jeremy Isaacs, or the favoured insiders' choice, John Tusa, formerly of the World Service.

The danger is that any new leader of the corporation might well look at what happened to Mr Birt and opt for a quiet life, 'bedding down' the Birt changes; not bothering to axe second-rate shows; avoiding the tough choices about what the BBC should do and where it should fit into the new broadcasting world of the Nineties. The organisation might be better off without Birt, but it cannot turn its back on Birtism. For, whatever his follies, Mr Birt was right about this: the BBC desperately needed to change, and it still does.

Sandra Barwick is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)

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