Francis Wheen

Deafened by Birtspeak

Fuzzy Monsters: Fear and Loathing at the BBC


William Heinemann 293pp £15.99 order from our bookshop

In February 1972, a bright young producer at London Weekend Television was described in a newspaper profile as someone who would be ‘very much at home behind an electric guitar in front of 5,000 watts of solid noise. He is big, hairy, hip. He wears button-through T -shirts and purple cord pants and a jacket with a snakeskin collar. Every inch a product of the rock age from his steelrims to his two-tone plimmies. He even comes from Liverpool.’

John Birt, for it was he, has clearly changed a bit since then. Nowadays he looks more like John Major’s long-lost brother, a grey man in a grey (if expensive) suit who talks like a management consultant. ‘Downsizing’, ‘delayering’, ‘outsourcing’ – these are his catch phrases. One day, perhaps, a postgraduate linguist will write a thesis explaining Birtspeak. Until then, we can only guess at what the Director-General of the BBC means when he spouts gibberish such as:

‘We need to establish a less prescriptive corporate framework which offers business units greater flexibility within the parameters of common core corporate guidelines.’

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