Platform 6: John Tusa appears to believe that he, not John Birt, should be running the BBC

Ian Richardson
Sunday 22 June 1997 23:02

I am not, by inclination, a believer in golden ages, but I am convinced that if the World Service had a golden age it was during the time when John Tusa was managing director (1986-92). John Tusa agrees with this, but the trouble is that he seems to believe this was entirely down to him.

It wasn't. Over the years Tusa had more than his fair share of luck and the backing of some highly skilled deputies. Additionally, world events conspired to persuade Margaret Thatcher that the World Service was somehow not part of the despised BBC and therefore was worthy of generous additional funding.

Tusa's great strengths as head of the World Service were his extraordinary charisma, his effortless ability to move in circles at all levels of society, and his inspirational leadership. But much of this would have been for naught without the other two members of the World Service triumvirate: his deputy managing director, David Witherow, and the man responsible for strategy, Anthony Rendall. Their contribution was to dissuade Tusa from his visionary excesses while developing and implementing those ideas that could be made to work.

For most of us at Bush House, working with John Tusa was both uplifting and fun, but his many friends and admirers also recognise that he is in possession of a substantial ego garnished with a generous serving of vanity: he appears to believe, apparently without qualification, that he, not John Birt, should be running the BBC.

It is here the problem lies: the two Johns dislike each other with a vengeance, having fallen out very soon after John Birt was recruited from London Weekend Television to be deputy director-general. They are very different people, but they share two key personality traits: both are driven by a need for public recognition; both are apparently devoid of self-doubt.

The animosity between Birt and Tusa now gives every appearance of being the driving force behind Tusa's continued backing for the Save the World Service campaign. Does he truly think that the restructuring, imposed without warning a year ago, can now be undone? Or is he simply creating mischief for Birt, with the side benefit of some personal publicity for himself?

There seems every chance that history will judge John Birt's stewardship of the BBC very harshly. He has much to answer for, not least his destruction of any sense of true loyalty to what was (and to some extent still is) one of the world's finest organisations, broadcasting or otherwise, But we won't know for sure, perhaps for a decade or more.

In a recent essay in The Guardian, John Tusa accuses Birt and the BBC chairman, Sir Christopher Bland, of Thatcherite behaviour, and adds, "Thatcherism is history.'' Yet he behaves like the Lady herself in constantly implying that his successors at Bush House have somehow failed to show the backbone, imagination and managerial skill that he would have displayed were he still in charge.

The clear message from his written and spoken pronouncements is that he would have seen off Birt; but he fails to recognise the completeness of last year's iron-fisted revolution.

The present managing director of the World Service, Sam Younger, has been confronted by an appalling situation, with problems that John Tusa had the good fortune never to face. Younger was hardly in place before he had to fight off an unsuccessful attempt by the Foreign Office to renege on part of the agreed funding. Then he found himself publicly humiliated by John Birt, who kept him in the dark about the restructuring until the very last moment.

There is no denying that Younger failed to show the leadership his staff expected of him in the days immediately after the restructuring was announced. He appeared a beaten man who had no idea what to do next. But the chorus of calls - made with the strongly implied backing of Tusa - that Younger should have made a principled stand by resigning were ludicrous; to have done so would have been instantly self-defeating. Anyone who has watched the way the present DG works knows that the resignation would have been accepted with enthusiasm and alacrity and that a Birt placeman would have been in Bush House by the end of that day's business.

A manager more flamboyant than Younger could arguably have handled the situation with greater imagination, but that doesn't mean that he is intrinsically a bad manager. From my experience he is not. He is a capable, friendly person from a solid production and management background. He understands his global audience and has a genuine long-term loyalty to the World Service and its staff. Given a different set of circumstances, his position would be unquestioned and entirely secure.

Younger has much to be proud of. Although in charge of an organisation going through an identity crisis, anyone listening to the service, as I do frequently, will recognise that its programmes are increasingly modern and audience-friendly, with their authority undiminished. The latest figures show an audience of 143 million regular listeners, up 23 million since John Tusa's day. The internal structures may be going through radical and disruptive changes, but the programmes continue to satisfy and pull in the crowds.

Tusa should now ask himself whether his actions are really helping the BBC World Service. In my view he should back off and let things be. He has what I assume is a full-time job as managing director of the Barbican Centre. No doubt the Barbican staff would welcome the knowledge that they have his full attention

The writer is a former senior editor with World Service Radio and Television. He left the BBC last year and is now a freelance writer, lecturer and producer.

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