Beeb's debt to Birt

The Fun Factory
August 8, 2003

When Margaret Thatcher's government appointed Marmaduke Hussey chairman of the BBC, many old-timers there saw him as a royal toady sent to bully them.

When Hussey fired director-general Alasdair Milne, the old-timers responded as though their king had been strangled by an upstart. Later, Hussey appointed John Birt director-general. Many BBC men greeted him as they would a hired assassin. To these people, the BBC, the last of the Athenian city-states, had been overrun by barbarians.

Hussey and Birt did indeed bring in an army of outsiders, many from ITV. BBC traditionalists felt that Broadcasting House and the Television Centre were being desecrated. But, as in war, they found some satisfaction in clinging together, bad-mouthing the enemy and plotting.

Will Wyatt, at the time of these events, was emerging as a key player at the BBC after a lifetime of creative service to the corporation. Hussey and Birt appointed him managing director, television. There, as he relates, he did his best to persuade those under him of the merits of the Birt-Hussey policies. The old-timers could not believe it. How, they asked, could Will, such a nice man - after a lifetime as "one of us" - have become a traitor?

You think I'm exaggerating? Talk to John Tusa, the dazzling polymath whom many in the know thought a shoo-in for director-general. Or listen to Peter Pagnamenta, maker of All Our Working Lives (one of the all-time great series), whom Birt fired as head of current affairs.

One of the remarks with which BBC men reassured each other of their superiority was "Birt got a third in engineering". Maybe. But engineers have served the BBC well. The top god in the insiders' pantheon is another engineer, John Reith. I think Reith and Birt are the two most significant of the BBC's directors-general. Reith created the great tradition; Birt saved it at its moment of imminent peril.

Unfortunately, both of them were inept at handling colleagues. Both angered and upset people. But lack of grace should deny neither of them the credit they deserve for their service to an important institution.

From the beginning, I was a supporter of the Hussey-Birt revolution. One of my reasons is recounted impeccably in Wyatt's book. It is the story of the £38 million the BBC lost - literally lost, as in "sorry, Mrs Thatcher, it must have dropped out of my pocket on the way to the opera".

Such carelessness rightly placed the BBC in danger.

Birt's case - which won Wyatt over - was not just that Mrs Thatcher might raze the BBC to the ground. It was that the BBC, with or without Mrs Thatcher, was a dinosaur coasting along the road to extinction, singing self-importantly as it went.

One of the outsiders Birt brought into the BBC was Peter Jay. In a talk at the Edinburgh Television Festival, he warned of the imminent arrival of multichannel competition. BBC wiseacres scoffed: they had lived with both ITV and Channel 4; parliament would never allow an open market free-for-all in something as important as broadcasting; Jay was just an economist - he didn't understand.

Decades as a monopoly had left the BBC without the skills or people needed to compete as the open market rose around them. With the end of "spectrum scarcity", parliament's ability to protect a small number of regulated broadcasters declined. Sky television, then Five and dozens of others would come onto the air, and the BBC would have to learn a new game. Its rivals studied the ratings and commissioned what they calculated viewers wanted to see. To the BBC (and to Birt) this was a painful culture shock.

What the old-timers did not understand was that Birt was as determined as they were to defend the BBC's unique qualities. Unlike them, he had the patience, planning ability and willpower to lead the fight.

His achievements were to launch the BBC into the digital channel market, where it now looks like succeeding (to shrieks of rage from its commercial rivals); to launch the BBC into the world of the internet, where it developed what many think is Britain's best website; to persuade the Conservative government to renew the BBC charter and to secure a licence-fee level that has kept the BBC better funded than all its rivals.

To achieve so much, he first had to put a stop to the BBC's wastefulness.

Another challenge he faced was the macho culture in BBC current affairs. A small group of self-confident men bestrode Panorama. They knew what was going on in the world and did viewers the honour of sharing their thoughts.

They were clever chaps, but the BBC had allowed them to become arrogant and overmighty. Birt and his team, including Wyatt, had to puncture their egos.

Sooner or later, somebody will write a sparkling history of how the BBC almost went under. But the time is not quite ripe. And the people centrally involved cannot tell the tale properly as they feel driven to keep writing "I was right". Still, media junkies will love every word of Wyatt's book.

Brian Lapping, for many years a producer at Granada Television, was making television programmes for the BBC (and other broadcasters) throughout the period covered by The Fun Factory.

The Fun Factory: A Life in the BBC

Author - Will Wyatt
ISBN - 1 85410 915 4
Publisher - Aurum
Price - £20.00
Pages - 372

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