Tim Luckhurst: Can John Birt really hate Dyke's BBC this much?

Thursday 10 October 2013 05:53

Armani suits, big glasses, expensive fetish for management consultants? You remember Lord Birt, the former BBC Director General? That's right, droning voice, mission to explain ... vigorous commitment to the optimisation of laterally integrated, self-sustaining creative hubs. What happened to him?

His Lordship entered the service of our own Dear Leader. As a special adviser to the Prime Minister, Lord Birt dedicates his time to "blue skies" thinking. He has already grappled with crime and proposed a solution to motorway congestion.

Recently Birt diverted his gaze from the stratosphere to support Alastair Campbell in his battle with the BBC. It seems that the Prime Minister was tiring of the controversy and urging Campbell to calm down. Birt disagreed. According to Campbell's testimony to the Hutton inquiry, the former DG advised that the controversy was "terrible for the BBC" and that "everyone knew the story was wrong".

Coming from a figure who once displayed considerable fortitude in confrontations between BBC News and the Thatcher government, that guidance must have looked valuable. Campbell may well have assumed that Birt's view reflected private thinking in the highest echelons of the BBC. He was certainly encouraged to be relentless in his pursuit of an apology.

So, Birt played a part in exacerbating the most ferocious schism ever between government and BBC. Staff who worked for the corporation when he was DG will not be entirely surprised. When he first arrived at the BBC he compared the experience to being an American in Vietnam. As DG he was contemptuous of the entrenched culture, despised anyone who questioned his strategy and promoted ideological soul mates into jobs to which they were luminously ill suited.

But Birt was a necessary evil. Inside the corporation he was almost alone in recognising the unique threat to public service broadcasting posed by Thatcherite ideology. Colleagues dismissed animosity generated by coverage of events like the 1986 US bombing of Libya as normal. Birt saw that it was not. He understood the ideological antipathy that made this new breed of Conservatives hostile to the very notion of licence fee financed broadcasting.

Internally, venom was nigh universal. I once walked down a corridor in Broadcasting House with a group of colleagues who made obscene gestures at his elegantly suited back. Others, particularly veteran correspondents, flocked to accuse him of destroying a national institution. But Birt was partially right. No matter how hard he tried to prevent Greg Dyke succeeding him, and he did work very hard indeed, an objective assessment must acknowledge that, without him, there would have been much less for Dyke to inherit. Until this week historians would have concluded that Birt's cruelty to the BBC was inflicted with the ultimate objective of saving it.

Now? Birt's prompting of Campbell gives malicious spite a bad name. If Campbell really believed that Birt could help him persuade the BBC to apologise for Andrew Gilligan's journalism then Birt's duty was to explain how unlikely that was. Had he done so he would have done his best for his current employer at minimum cost to the BBC. He was ideally situated to pour cold water on the flames, but chose instead to spray them with naphtha.

Having worked as a BBC journalist under Birt I suspect that his fury stems in part from anger at Gilligan's methods. For Birt, relentless checking and refinement of original news stories went beyond reasonable caution. It became a morale-destroying obsession. Reporters began to doubt the value of pursuing exclusive information because they feared the gruelling pedantry of senior executives. The process imposed before an original story ever reached the airwaves often had the effect of neutering any revelations it might originally have contained. Gilligan's rather cavalier approach to note taking and his preference for live instead of scripted reporting would not have been tolerated.

If that makes the former DG's intervention sound principled there is a caveat. Birt must have known that the BBC would not surrender to Campbell's assault. His familiarity with corporate tradition can have left him in no doubt that it would fight. That was what he should have told Campbell.

That he did not, leaves the impression of a man who believes his successor must be punished for daring to reverse the reforms he imposed on the BBC.

Birt has joined the list of those whose reputations have already been battered by Lord Hutton's inquiry. He could have avoided that fate. We hardly need Hutton's conclusions. Government, BBC and civil service are already exposed as organisations prepared to perform the most distasteful contortions to protect their own interests. No doubt that is to the public good. It certainly makes a powerful case for the sort of freedom of information legislation that would ensure such details were published without the expense of a formal inquiry.

But there is another conclusion. When the dust has settled, an intermediary will be required to restore trust between BBC and government. It must not be Birt.

The author is a former BBC executive

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