Francis Wheen

Deafened by Birtspeak

Fuzzy Monsters: Fear and Loathing at the BBC

By

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.’

As Horrie and Clarke note, the disease is infectious: Margaret Salmon, the BBC’s Director of Personnel, announced recently that the ‘Overheads Review Taskforce’ had decided to sack 1200 people by ‘focusing on activities rather than departments and developing a cost-benefit matrix as a tool to help prioritise the areas in which we would work hardest to develop savings ideas’.

How did our national organ of ‘communication’ fall into the hands of these babble-brains, or ‘croak-voiced Daleks’ as Dennis Potter calls them? That is the question which Horrie and Clarke set out to answer in this entertaining but also depressing book. Their argument runs as follows. Mrs Thatcher, like most prime ministers, hated the BBC, believing it to be a nest of socialists. (Harold Wilson, it is worth recalling, disliked the Corporation because he thought it was full of Tories.) When the BBC’s chairmanship became vacant she gave the job to Stuart Young, the brother of her chum Lord Young of Graffham, on the assumption that he would shoo out the smart alecks and lefties and start broadcasting the sort of programmes that even Norman Tebbit could watch without losing his temper. But Young went native: after studying the Corporation at close quarters, he concluded that it was neither profligate nor partisan. Following his early death, Mrs T tried again by appointing Marmaduke Hussey, a ludicrous figure whose only discernible qualification for the job was that he was a friend of Rupert Murdoch, Thatcher’s favourite media mogul, and therefore counted as ‘one of us’.

This time, she was not disappointed. Hussey swiftly sacked the Director-General, Alasdair Milne (who had signed his death warrant by transmitting ‘Maggie’s Militant Tendency’, a Panorama exposé of right-wing Tories), and replaced him with Michael Checkland, an accountant. More significant, however, was the arrival of John Birt as Checkland’s deputy, with a brief to ‘clean up’ the BBC’s news and current affairs departments.

Birt may have cut his hair and shed his purple cord pants, but in other respects he was very much the same chap who had so impressed the profile writer many years before. The secret of his success, then as now, was simple: be aloof or brutal to those below you, but suck up like billyo to anyone who might be important. Back in 1969, as a researcher on World in Action, he had made a programme in which William Rees-Mogg and other eminences discussed the ‘Generation Gap’ with Mick Jagger. Rees-Mogg was tremendously impressed by this deferential young man, and became a founder-member of the Birt fan club: in the mid-1970s, as Editor of The Times, he published a much-discussed series of articles in which Birt and Peter Jay suggested that there was a ‘bias against understanding’ in television news. (Shortly afterwards, I overheard a TV producer expounding the theory to a colleague. ‘It’s the Birt-Jay thesis,’ he added. The other man looked puzzled. ‘Who’s Bert Jay?’)

According to Horrie and Clarke, once he was installed at the BBC Birt carried on in much the same manner. He charmed and flattered government ministers, while simultaneously antagonising the Corporation’s galley slaves with complicated, pointless reorganisations. The Cabinet was impressed: if this man was hated by BBC staff then, on the my-enemy’s-enemy principle, he must be a good egg. Checkland was duly shunted off into early retirement, and the man who used to wear two-tone plimmies stepped into the shoes of Lord Reith.

Had the Tories troubled to examine Birt’s achievements more closely, they might have had second thoughts. Although he parrots the rhetoric that they like to hear (‘internal markets’ and so forth), his ‘reforms’ have in fact created a huge new bureaucracy of penpushers and papershuffiers, committees and working parties, all dedicated to drowning the poor old BBC in a vast sea of Birtspeak. A typical product of this endeavour was a ninety-page report called Extending Choice, which, when stripped of its pie charts and graphics, consisted largely of Maoist-style slogans and statements of the obvious: THE INDUSTRY HAS BEGUN TO MOVE TOWARDS A NEW STRUCTURAL MODEL, it revealed in large type. THE BBC WILL FOCUS ON PERFORMING A SET OF CLEARLY DEFINED ROLES.

Battier still was Producer Choice, the ‘initiative’ that turned programme-makers into ‘business units’. Production costs were divided into ‘tariff items’ (which were charged to individual programmes) and ‘non-tariff items’ (fixed overheads, such as the cost of the transmitter network). Every last paper cup or Biro had to be accounted for: according to Clarke and Horrie, one regional costume department ‘published an eight-page brochure detailing tariff charges down to the last button and zip’ Having thought long and hard, Birt decided that paperclips and certain types of stationery would still be provided centrally as ‘non-tariff items’, thus solving what he described as ‘the paperclip problem’. A ‘data base’ was set up to monitor the new system, supported by a swelling army of statisticians; yet more bureaucrats were hired to ‘educate’ the staff about Producer Choice – though with little success. As a radio producer complained at one meeting held to explain the scheme: ‘I started off as a production business unit. A couple of months ago I became a resource business unit; and a couple of days ago an orchestral business unit. What does this mean, please?’

With so much time and money being spent on Birt’s exciting new ‘structures’ and ‘systems’, the programmes themselves wilted and died from lack of attention. BBC1’s ratings have now fallen far behind those of ITV, while Channel 4 has overtaken BBC2. Eldorado has come and gone, as has Radio 5. The only area in which Birt has made an effort is news and current affairs – with disastrous results. Guided by apparatchiks well tutored in the Birt-Jay theory, Panorama was transformed from a lively magazine into an unwatchably tedious weekly seminar on ‘issues’.

Last December, Birt was asked by Raymond Snoddy of the Financial Times for his verdict on 1993. It was a year in which morale at the BBC had plummeted; Producer Choice had been introduced, bringing chaos in its wake; viewers had deserted in their thousands; he had been attacked by grand old stalwarts such as Mark Tully, Sir David Attenborough and David Dimbleby; and he had been obliged to apologise for a tax-avoidance scheme whereby his salary was paid into a private company and his wife was officially listed as his secretary. What, as Morecambe and Wise used to enquire, did he think of the show so far? ‘I have – I am sorry to say it, it’s a genuine feeling – a strong sense of success’, he replied.

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