Birt Blasts Beeb 

4 February 2004 tbs.pm/698

Ouch! Unpleasant to listen to the unpleasant Lord Birt, unlamented late BBC DG, laying into the Corporation in the Lords this afternoon. When Dyke departed the other day, people cheered him and shook his hand; when Birt left some years earlier, they apparently had to send a handful of people out front to clap.

Birt suggested that “[The Governors] had failed for too long to act as the BBC’s regulators and in the process they had brought into question the institution’s 1920s system of governance…” among other comments, the nicer ones of which appear in this BBC News Online article.

That would appear to be some kind of swipe against the 80-year-old foundations of the BBC. And though I would not for a moment suggest that ancient documents – the US Constitution or the BBC Charter, for example – and their authors could foresee the turn of modern events and thus said items should be left untouched, however out of touch they may become with the world today, I would suggest that both documents have fared pretty well over the years and the BBC Charter, for one, should be handled with some care and not messed with without a great deal of thought – rather more thought than Birt’s dig appears to have had behind it.

I believe I am right in thinking that Lord Birt actually works for the Government these days, as a kind of one-person blue-sky think tank. I do hope he doesn’t have too much influence on Charter Review, though I fear he will…

Birt also claimed that the Gilligan story, which he described as a “piece of slipshod journalism” (I can go along with that), was – contrary to popular opinion, journalistic or otherwise – not “mostly right” at all.

I don’t see this as a particularly sustainable comment, as it seems to be closer and closer to “mostly right” almost every minute. If it’s not “mostly right”, why the problem with a wide-ranging WMD enquiry as suggested by the LibDems and some Labour back-benchers?

Basically, I’m looking for a probably-impossible win-win situation here. I would like the BBC to emerge from the present challenges, and from Charter Review, without its wings clipped and with continuing encouragement and funding to produce high quality programming.

To sustain its role at the heart of our democracy and as the standard-setter in British broadcasting, the BBC also needs to maintain its independence. The much-maligned and misunderstood licence fee, which is not a tax and is thus not controlled by the Government of the day, is the best way of doing it that anyone has come up with in 80 years, though I am open to alternative suggestions that don’t involve privatisation, commercials or government oversight.

I also, actually, don’t want to see the Government lose the confidence of the country, because we have lived through the alternatives and not yet recovered from them. But to me, that means the Government has to come clean.

The BBC – and the Labour party, for that matter – should not have to suffer the results of Campbell’s personal vendetta against our leading broadcaster, either. It’s an ill windbag that blows nobody any good.

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Richard G Elen Contact More by me

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Liverpool, Thursday 20 January 2022