Magazine article The Spectator

Squandering Resources

Magazine article The Spectator

Squandering Resources

Article excerpt

At last the BBC has one director general instead of two. Last week John Birt finally left the BBC, hastened out of the door two months early by a peerage so that his successor Greg Dyke could get his feet under the desk. To mark his departure, Radio Four assessed his legacy in The House That Birt Built (Wednesday) with a panel of four and an audience of acolytes, critics and pundits. The presenter was Edward Stourton.

The title of the programme was itself a colossal conceit. It was Reith who built the BBC, not Birt. All Birt did was employ at vast public expense an array of cowboy architects and builders who tacked on dodgy extensions, tore out the Adam fireplaces, hacked away the Grinling Gibbons carvings and generally weakened the main Grade One Listed building. Since then subsidence has occurred as these extensions drag down the original structure requiring even more public money to put right.

Present on the programme were the usual Birt toadies, David Mellor, the ex-MP who is prey to the myth that Birt had saved the BBC (he certainly saved Mellor); Matthew Bannister, the chief executive of production, plucked from obscurity some years ago to become the Goliath of Birt yes-men; David Aaronovitch and Samir Shah, old LWT chums and Birt sherpas.

Aaronovitch was amusing. He said that when he arrived 'as a relatively incompetent executive' (something of an understatement) he found evasion and chaos. He forgot to add that this state of affairs was entirely the result of his hero's activities. Fortunately, the integrity of the programme was rescued by the presence of Birt's critics who were allowed their say: Sir Paul Fox, Andrew Neil, Charles Wheeler and Sir Robin Day. It was Wheeler who said pertinently, 'I remember eight director-generals and this is the only one I am glad to see go.' Birt, he added, had created a climate of fear.

Neil, who presents an excellent Radio Five Live news and current affairs programme on Sunday mornings, said that what depressed him was the squandering of resources on huge layers of management and consultants when the money should have been spent on programmes, and Fox thought Birt had torn the heart out of the BBC. Radio Four would not have had the courage to air such revisionism while Birt was still ensconced in imperial splendour but with the DG half way out the door it took the plunge, with successful results.

Stourton, who is obviously regarded as a safe pair of hands, was back in action presenting Today live from Brussels on Monday this week. …

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