Magazine article The Spectator

Pretty Gruesome

Magazine article The Spectator

Pretty Gruesome

Article excerpt

No doubt we all tend to see ourselves in different ways to how others see us but in the case of John, now Lord Birt, the former director general of the BBC, the gap is breathtakingly wide. This became clear during his appearance on Night Waves on Radio Three last week, one of several on the radio to promote his memoirs, The Harder Path.

He could not recognise the descriptions of him by certain former colleagues that he was stubborn, tolerated no opposition or alternative ideas, was authoritarian, lowered morale at the BBC for 13 long years with a series of expensive and futile reorganisations that in the end failed to produce better programmes which is precisely what the BBC is there to do. No, although he admitted he could be stubborn he thought he was very open-minded. 'I truly believe I'm a very open person ... I love a debate, I love a dialogue.'

This was too much for Sarah Dunant. `Yes and no, Lady Copper,' she interrupted. When she worked in television during the Birt period she had found that `once critical, one was not called upon to talk again'. It was felt, she said, that if what you said `didn't fit in with the vision then in a sense one was demoted'. Birt was always rather good at rewriting the BBC's history to justify his or, more accurately, the management consultants' schemes to change the Corporation.

Here he was at it again. When he arrived as deputy director general in 1987, `It was a lot worse than I had imagined it would be.

It was, frankly, pretty gruesome on the inside.' He thought that the BBC had gone through the worst crisis in its history, the director general had been fired, `the BBC was on the rocks. Its journalism was weak; its creativity had become patchy; poor performance was not being rooted out; it was bloated, inefficient and was wasting money on an extraordinary scale; was inward-looking, not accountable, didn't understand the world . . . '

So what did Birt do? He set about wasting hundreds of millions of pounds on management consultants, introducing an internal market which cost even more and much of which has since been abandoned.

There were even costly blunders in setting up computer and Internet systems. He created digital TV and radio stations that most people don't want to watch or listen to and encased the organisation within a deeply rigid bureaucratic management structure. …

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