LONDON — The longest-running personal feud in British television has flared up again — and this time the stakes are higher than ever.
So high, in fact, that the spat over how to pay for the BBC in the digital age will help to determine the winners and losers in the new era of multichannel TV.
By a bizarre turn of fate, two of the U.K.’s most famous and revered tube toppers, Michael Grade and John Birt, are once again at loggerheads, this time over a controversial proposal that the BBC license fee should be shared with its commercial rivals, a practice called “top-slicing.”
Grade and Birt fell out two decades ago in a bruising power struggle at the BBC, where both occupied senior positions. The row led to Grade’s abrupt exit to run Channel 4 and a feeling that Birt had betrayed him.
Before their BBC boardroom clash, Grade and Birt had worked amiably together at London Weekend Television, then one of the big five companies that made up dominant commercial broadcaster ITV.
Grade, much to Birt’s displeasure, now chairs the BBC, while Birt, who led the pubcaster for much of the 1990s as its director-general, is Lord Birt and a key if somewhat secretive adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair.
In his autobiography, “It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time,” Grade, who ran Pinewood Studios before being appointed BBC chairman, depicts Birt as a cold, calculating, humorless character prepared to ignore personal friendships when they stood in the way of his own ambition.
“The John Birt I worked with for eight fulfilling years at LWT is a man for whom I still carry the deepest affection, respect and loyalty,” writes Grade.
“The Birt I left at the BBC is someone I didn’t recognize, didn’t like and could not respect.”
Birt subsequently responded: “We never did discuss our differences. A woman Michael had been close to told me: ‘Michael never forgives those he feels have betrayed him. He will never forgive you.’ ”
Ten days ago Birt, an austere public figure who has always cultivated friends in high places, told the Financial Times he believes the pubcaster should not have a monopoly on the license fee.
He believes that if channels like ITV receive a cut of the coin, they will reinstall serious current-affairs programs. Most industry experts regard that view as deeply naïve.
Birt thinks the BBC’s inhouse regulators, the board of governors, with whom he clashed during his year at the pubcaster, should be scrapped and replaced by a Public Service Commission that would decide how the license fee cash should be divvied up.
His intervention is believed to have delayed the publication of a crucial pre-legislative document on the BBC, a Government Green Paper, now due to be published later this week.
This will put forward various options for the pubcaster’s future, including how it is financed and managed, before the renewal of the BBC’s Royal Charter next year.
“John is being peevish,” says an ex-BBC executive. “If the ideas he supports were implemented, it would be disastrous for the BBC.”
Birt’s intervention is a direct slap in the face for Grade, once a flamboyant webhead famous for smoking big cigars in public and spouting incisive one-liners, but latterly a serious, statesman-like figure.
He has spent the last six months spearheading a campaign to reform rather than scrap the BBC’s board of governors, which he chairs, arguing the case for the BBC to continue to be funded by sole use of the license fee.
The fee is levied on every British home to the tune of £126 ($240) and brings in more than $5.7 billion a year for the pubcaster.
It is believed that Blair backs Birt’s opinion but is opposed by media secretary Tessa Jowell, who appointed Grade to chair the BBC over Birt’s lobbying.
The Green Paper will set out various options for the BBC’s future, but the fact that it has been delayed suggests Birt’s views will be reflected in it, even if the ideas he backs do not prevail.
Some suggest Blair wants to “top-slice” the license fee in revenge for what he regarded as the BBC’s unfair reporting of the Iraq war. The spat over the BBC’s coverage of Iraq claimed the heads of Grade’s predecessor, Gavyn Davies, and Birt’s successor, Greg Dyke, last January.
Others, however, think a compromise will be reached with the BBC retaining sole use of the license fee but with more power to manage it passing to regular Ofcom.
“Blair isn’t vindictive,” says a broadcasting consultant. “And he knows how popular the BBC is with the public.”
But Birt does have the prime minister’s ear — and the festering row between him and Grade is deeply personal.
If “top-slicing” happens, Grade almost certainly would resign the chairmanship of the BBC; director-general Mark Thompson is likely to step down too.
One thing is certain: The feud between these two toppers is set to run and run.