Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Time for Birt, v2?

John Birt's hour come round again?
I enjoy reading - and listening to - my old friend and colleague Steve Richards.
But when he writes about his onetime employer, the BBC, something odd seems to get hold of him. That's true of his latest column 'What's needed at the BBC is the rigour of the Birt era' 
It's reasonable enough to speculate on what the kerfuffle over Pageantgate (oh, come on ... someone must have called it that already?) might mean for the search for a new BBC DG. But Steve makes a bit of a stretch when he tells us it proves "the institution is in need of fresh leadership and, arguably, for leadership of any kind at all".
And that one of the things the "fresh leadership" of a new DG needs to do is cull the "tendency for a small, but significant, part of the output to lapse into unconvincing populism".
I don't know anyone inside or outside the Beeb who thinks it got the pageant right. But I've not come across too many who think the rest of the jubilee coverage was anything less than first-rate. I made both clear here and, I hope, on Radio 4's Feedback.
Steve's not far off when he describes it as "misjudged populism". But he's flat wrong when he asserts that what went wrong with the pageant is "part of a pattern, and symptomatic of an inverse snobbery that has infected parts of the BBC since the departure of John Birt as Director-General".
A shiny floor show with an event attached
It's almost certainly much simpler than that.
I have no inside knowledge, but I'd be astonished if the decisions over how to cover the pageant were the result of anything other than a) the realities (people/resources) of covering so many events in so short a time and b) the usual bloody skirmishes between the BBC's feudal baronies.
This wasn't serious old News trying to be funky and failing, like that toe-curling Jeremy-Vine-as-cowboy election feature or the cringingly awful celeb boat party. Once the skirmishes were over, this was always meant to be a shiny floor show made, for the most part, by shiny floor people ... with an event attached. And my hunch is that what came out of the screen was pretty much to BBC One Controller Danny Cohen's taste if no-one else's.
But you'd expect me to bridle at the passage where Steve tries to link what went wrong at the pageant with Hutton via the number of BBC managers: "Those who followed the long trail of complacent managerial emails published during the Hutton Inquiry after the Iraq war will recognise the persistent problem. So many senior managers are theoretically responsible that few, if any, are directly responsible and accountable".
Shamless book plug
It's hard to know where to start with that and you'll have to wait 'til my book Stumbling Over Truth comes out in September to get the full version as far as Hutton is concerned.
But where Steve sees "complacent management", I see a robust defence of free speech and the BBC's right to report well-founded, serious allegations that told a truth about the government's September 2002 dossier.
Thanks to Lord Hutton's decision not to call me to give my evidence, the truth about that defence as well as my decision to put Andrew Gilligan on air in the first place hasn't so far been heard.
You'll just have to take it from me that there was nothing "complacent" about it ... and wait until September to learn why.
BBC "undermanaged"
But here's the thing. Steve's nostalgia for the Birt era persuades him that a Birt II would prune managers and invest those who remained with real responsibility and a "sense of distinctive mission".
Hmmm - that's not what happened the first time around. At least, it's not the way I saw it. The explosion in the number of managers, layers of management and diffused responsibility belonged to the Birt era, not the years of Dyke or Thompson.
One of Birt's early dictums was that the BBC was "undermanaged" - hence the bands of nomadic management consultants constantly camped on our lawns throughout his era.
When I became a programme Editor in 1989, I had two bosses; ENCAR - Editor News and Current Affairs Radio - and Controller Radio 4. By the time Birt stood down I had more than I could count - at least five and I was never sure what most of them did.
Departments were split-up - News from Current Affairs, Newsgathering from Output - and new teams assembled to manage them. Whole new layers of management were inserted into Birt's beloved organograms - Executive and Managing Editors - while the amount of management data we all had to collect and report multiplied many times over. "If you can measure it you can manage it", was another of his catechists' chants.
It's not impossible to be a Birt fan - but not for the spurious reasons Steve cites. Birt's vision in the mid-1990s - the potential of the web - has turned out to be as important as John Reith's in the 1920s when he saw the possibilities of Marconi's wireless. Let's thank him for that while we pray for no second coming.
The lesson of Pageantgate (last time, promise) for the next DG, and for Lord Patten as he works out who it should be, is simple.
It has to be someone who's got the creative track record, peer respect and self-confidence to stand up to the big beasts, Channel controllers and the like, when they propose and commission something so evidently out of tune with the nation's tastes as that pageant coverage.
Fail on that, and the Beeb really is in trouble.          

1 comment:

Andy Tedd said...


Who on the current list is going to do that?