Embattled boss attempts to dodge attacks with speech

John Birt, the embattled director-general of the BBC, made a stirring defense of the British pubcaster last night at his first major public appearance since controversy erupted over his employment status.

Birt endeavored to restore lost credibility and provide evidence of the strong moral and intellectual leadership critics within the Beeb have said he lacks.

The speech, his first public pronouncement on policy and philosophy since taking over the reins from Sir Michael Checkland, was warmly received by an audience consisting mostly of seasoned broadcasters and BBC-watchers.

Birt spent six years as the BBC’s deputy director-general on a freelance contract, an arrangement that continued when he assumed the top job this year. The job status allowed him to minimize his personal tax bill, but revelation of this prompted an outcry and a concerted press campaign to force his resignation. Birt announced this month that he would become a salaried BBC employee (Daily Variety, March 2).

Last night, delivering the Fleming Memorial lecture, Birt expressed regret at having “exposed the organization I am now privileged to lead to such unwarranted turmoil in recent weeks.”

Birt made a strong case for defending the BBC’s program excellence and craft skills. But he also took the corporation to task for its overblown bureaucracy and antiquated work practices. Quoting the 1940s diaries of George Orwell, a former BBC staffer, Birt demonstrated that the Beeb has long been strangled by bureaucrats and made its best programs in spite of them.

Identifying the need for change brought about by the new era in broadcasting, including the advent of new terrestrial competitors as well as satellite and cable channels, Birt stated bluntly that “the monolith could not continue.”

But in trying to slim down and reform the organization, which at its peak employed 30,000 people, Birt has been pilloried by die-hard traditionalists as a wrecker and a Philistine.

Under Birt, BBC producers can buy technical and production services from outside the Beeb. At the same time, he has forced the craft and technical departments to compete with outside suppliers.

In the same vein, he has encouraged network controllers to commission programs from independent producers as well as from producers within the Beeb.

Birt acknowledged that the reform process would not be easy but insisted that the purpose of change was to “ensure that as much money as possible is channeled towards the most creative ends, to the people who actually make the programs.”

As the commercial TV market becomes more competitive, Birt said, the BBC “can extend choice, complement commercially funded broadcasters with services the market will not provide or which are at risk in a more intensely competitive marketplace.”

But Birt denied that the BBC would aim for the heights of program-quality at the expense of popularity.

“We will not abandon the fertile green pastures of the programs which hold appeal to wide audiences,” he said. “I am not attracted by the so-called Himalayan option for the BBC. We will not become an elitist repository for the broadcasting no one else wants to provide.”

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