Magazine article The Spectator

The Reign of King John

Magazine article The Spectator

The Reign of King John

Article excerpt

The reign of King John Michael Vestey THE HARDER PATH by John Birt Time Warner Books, L20, pp. 511, ISBN 0316860190

When, in these pages, John Birt expresses wonderment at how the boy from Bootle went on to become the 12th director general of the BBC, to enter the House of Lords and be an adviser to the prime minister it is a sentiment shared by many. The clue probably lies in the brutal Irish Christian Brothers school he went to, St Mary's in Liverpool, where beatings with the strap were carried out sadistically every day. The boys even had a name for it: Strapology.

A fellow pupil at the school has since said that as a result it tended to produce authoritarian figures who also knew how to be submissive towards the masters to avoid punishments. In other words, people who knew how to creep. Looking at Birt's career he seems to have won over a number of people in authority, among them Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister, the former chairman of the BBC Governors Duke Hussey, and latterly Tony Blair, whom he now advises on transport policy.

In fact, Birt knew how to charm politicians, which, to be fair, is a necessary talent for a BBC director general. Politicians, gripped by their own certainties and beliefs, cannot understand why an organisation like the BBC, funded by a compulsory tax, can produce programmes that might criticise them. Deep down, and often without realising it, they expect the BBC to be tame. Alasdair Milne was sacked as director general in 1987 because he didn't have much time for politicians and had allowed his television current affairs department at Lime Grove to mount sometimes dubious programmes about the Tory government and defence policy. It was out of control and showed bias.

Birt, brought in as deputy director general, did at least introduce controls but in such a way that many programmes were rigid, often dull and rather obvious explanations about current affairs, fitting his socalled Mission to Explain ideas, first outlined by him and Peter Jay, about how television should cover complex issues. …

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