Profile: John Birt

24 Jul

Despite what many would consider a liberal background at LWT, when John Birt became Director General of the BBC people realised he was there to put the Government’s proposals into action.

In the 1980s Thatcher, angry about coverage of her government, had intended to scrap the license fee, make the BBC carry advertising and effectively privatise it. Fortunately this did not happen but her complaints; that there was not enough choice, that pay was excessive, that the trade unions had the BBC in a vice-like grip, and that news and current affairs coverage was anti-government were effectively incorporated into the BBC’s Charter when it came up for renewal. It was Birt who would do the streamlining.

In 1989 Birt was promoted from Deputy Director General to the top position. Change came quickly. He stripped down the organisation, merging the News and Current Affairs operations to a great degree and putting Documentary and Current Affairs in one building. To help justify this he brought in a series of consultants. This cut the amount of money available for ‘minor things’ like floats to virtually nothing.

Birt introduced the concept of ENG (Electronic News Gathering) into regional news. The idea, borrowed from north America, is that a news crew consists of two people. One is the cameraman, who also does sound, lighting, driving, and sometimes editing. The other is the reporter who also does the directing, research, and the job of the Production Assistant.

The BBC had been a vertical organisation with jobs for life in a duopoly with ITV. But, just as Thatcher had hoped, Birt smashed the unions. Ideas such as ENG which merged jobs were dubbed ‘multi-skilling’, but they amounted to de-skilling. The days of 3-month paid holidays ensured by BECTU (the broadcasting technician’s union) were over. Massive redundancies followed and it was also the end of internal training so now the employee has to pay.

With the renewal of its charter the BBC had to commission 25% of its programmes from independent producers. Birt pushed for far greater reliance than the charter requirement. He also made BBC an internal market. The ‘internal market’, where everything is priced and producers are given a budget has proved virtually unworkable. There was also a levy known as the “John Birt Tariff” of 20% to pay for consultants (such as John Birt as it later emerged). Producers who had spent their lives working at the BBC had never had to do costing before. This was a disastrous mistake which is only now beginning to be undone.

Due to the reliance on independent companies the BBC now buys many of its programmes from the ITV companies who are busy swallowing each other whole. At the other extreme stars have their own production companies which must be employed to get the star in front of a camera. For instance, if you want Lenny Henry to do a show, you have to hire his production company too. This means stars can dictate programming to a degree.

When Birt was promoted from Deputy DG to DG in 1989 he was faced with revenue problems due to the low license fee (which is not linked to inflation), and facing the prospect of having to re-equip every three years he decided that the BBC would focus on what he called “distinctive programming” to justify the continuation of the license fee.

Birt was about instituting authoritarianism on the BBC because of past programmes that had been critical of government and because it represented a large, public, high-cost, bureaucratic organisation that could not easily be privatised. He was determined to do something about “radical” programmes such as ‘Panorama’. Birt’s hopes to streamline the BBC made it amorphous. It was no longer financially inefficient but it stifled creativity. It was broken up into different department heads who made programmes but didn’t broadcast them.

The main drive of Birt’s changes came in factual programming. It was summarised by the ‘mission to explain’. In practical terms Birt aimed to remove the divide between the TV and radio branches of the news organisation. Birt thought the BBC didn’t explain enough about what was going on in the world. The emphasis was placed on being less populist than World in Action (to be “distinctive”). Current Affairs programmes were more analytical, often backgrounders to a news story. They were inevitably boring. As Panorama became less investigative it also became less challenging to do. The reasoning was to differentiate from ITV with Weekend World, On The Record, Public Eye, the return of Costume Drama.

The argument was “Current Affairs is emotive but has no context or background.” Birt went on to make the BBC’s current affairs all the same. Worse than that, the structure was set up before filming. With a pre-shooting script you are supposed to know what your interviewees are going to say before you interview them. This saves money but journalism it is not.

The other bone that caught in the throat of journalists was the emphasis on “good news” that was probably responsible for putting the Queen’s speech in front of the M40 motor-way crash.

Birt’s overriding mission was to pacify the BBC. He managed it but viewing figures dropped and journalists deserted it. Today the BBC tends to hire people who have already made it on ITV/C4 rather than taking chances. Cable and satellite TV were introduced as part of Government policy but they did not intend to hand Murdoch a monopoly.

As the situation stands the BBC now does deals with BSkyB, negotiating for second showing rights to major sports events. And while the corporation is running World Service TV on tax-payers’ money it is also seeking to buy in more American drama to compete with Channel Four’s ‘ER’ and ‘NYPD Blue’. One of the biggest producers is Fox TV, of ‘X-Files’ fame, so ultimately there are very close ties between the BBC and Murdoch. Unless legislation is put in place to secure major sporting events such as Wimbledon and people become more reluctant to pay the license fee, the future of the BBC seems increasingly uncertain.

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Posted by on July 24, 2011 in Media, Profile


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