Wanted: a new John Birt for the BBC

I never thought I’d write this but John Birt is the kind of figure the BBC now needs to steady the ship. In 1987 the BBC faced a similar if slower burning crisis. The DG Alasdair Milne never recovered from the row in 1985 over Real Lives: On the Edge of the Union, a network documentary that depicted the then Derry IRA boss Martin McGuinness not as a red in tooth and claw monster but as a man capable of leading an ordinary domestic life (surprise, surprise) , not unlike Gregory Campbell  a militant DUP man who owned a personal protection weapon but was not a terrorist.  It may have been too subtle or value free a  thesis for the era, following the hunger strike and the Brighton bomb. These dire events following  the assassination of her close associate Airey Neave  just before she took office fuelled Mrs Thatcher’s visceral hatred of the IRA and her suspicion, maybe loathing, of the BBC.  Her dislike had also been stoked by the BBC’s fair reporting of the Falklands war in 1982. But Thatcher’s hostility was only the most critical in a long line dating back at least to the 1950s.

Nothing like this standoff over “Britain at war”  whether against the Argentinians and the IRA exists today. The government is not in confrontation with the BBC, as it was then and later over the Hutton agenda, so we can be thankful for such mercies.

I don’t pretend to know the detail of the present crisis yet. But the problems lie in the gap between the BBC’s necessary and commendable culture of delegating the creative initiative to the programme makers and the system of advice and referral – and intervention – to protect them, the institution and not least the output.

The BBC has procedures for getting programmes safely on air.  These could hardly be more prescriptive but over the Newsnight McAlpine slur they unaccountably collapsed. For those interested there are some parallels with the RTE Prime Time “A Mission to Prey” crisis last year. But over  the earlier pulling of the the Saville story  the guidelines  didn’t apply. There aren’t formal procedures for keeping a story going if the editor wants to drop it.

And yet too punctilious observance of procedure  combined with a lack of  mutual confidence along the editorial chain seems to have produced the confusion that led to a double crisis. The second crisis if anything is more worrying. Tainted by the first, the regular editorial management had stood aside from decisions connected to the  expanding waves of the Saville story. Experienced substitutes replaced them. And yet the most elementary mistakes were made, perhaps to overcompensate for the first.   Many of the BBC’s editorial leaders are now compromised.

What can be done? When Milne was fired in 1987 he was replaced by a BBC lifer, not a programme maker but the accountant Mike Checkland who formally remained editor in chief. This jaundiced account gives a flavour of the critical reaction and context.  John Birt from ITV was appointed deputy DG and head of News. Making him DG in one was reckoned a step too far but the succession was his to lose. Birt set about gradually amalgamating the warring baronies of News and Current Affairs , and introducing a far more intense system of editorial commissioning  referral and scrutiny. Many of us feared that over centralised direction would damage the culture and the institution.

As Peter Bazalgette’s review of his memoirs says , Birt may have lacked charm but was a control freak in order to impose a better system on an organisation which was  too big for even him to dominate. He may have saved the BBC from itself and very tellingly reduced the BBC’s exposure to government hostility.  For historians it was like a move from the Wars of the Roses to the Tudor State.

While there are always arguments over editorial courage and creative originality, the Birt legacy can clearly be seen as positive overall. Perhaps his most distinctive ability was to drill down in detail and come up with a result. Birt would never have allowed at least part 2 of this crisis to happen.The lesson I’m afraid is that the need for reform is always constant

BBC management jobs may seem bewildering  even for a £5 billion turnover but the referral system is not  cumbersome. There may be too many bosses but many exist because of the requirements of commercial compliance, as the BBC is obliged to commission more and more programmes from the commercial sector. This applies less to News.  In this case the self denying ordinance of management against undue interference was carried on to suicidal lengths.

Splitting the DG’s job  is exactly the wrong thing to do. The interests of management and programme making must remain integrated at the very top.  But the new DG whatever his or her skills will need  either a head of journalism like a previous deputy DG Mark Byford whose post was closed in an effort  to set a tone for cuts at the top, or better still, a John Birt. But where is he, in a much diminished private broadcasting sector where the business and marketing people are now in charge?

Languishing in an Oxford college perhaps?

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London