Copyright Ian D. Richardson Email: contact@preddonlee.com

(First published by The Independent, London, September 29, 1998)

BIRT'S STRIKE AGAINST WORLD SERVICE
by Ian Richardson

You've got to hand it to Sir John Birt [since elevated to Lord Birt]. He knows exactly when to strike: just when everyone least expects it and just when they can do little or nothing about it.

His shafting of Sam Younger*, Managing-Director of BBC World Service, last week was a classic move. Maximum secrecy, a replacement lined up, the corporate press managers ready to spring into action with the approved spin, publication of Ariel, the staff magazine, delayed for several hours until the deed was done, and a secondary story, the appointment of Matthew Bannister as new head of BBC Production, set up to draw away much of the attention.

This was J. Birt as his most efficient and most ruthless.

I admire the skills he displayed in protecting the licence fee. I agree with the decision to set up the much-maligned 24-Hour News, though it was clearly launched at least a year too soon. I agree with the deep involvement in digital broadcasting. I agree with the development of BBC Online, the Internet service. I agree with Radio 5 Live. I agree with some of the restructuring proposals.

But [Lord Birt], aided by his former Chairman of Governors, Marmaduke (now Lord) Hussey, has brutalised BBC staff relations in a manner thought inconceivable before they arrived on the scene.

He has relentless hacked away at the traditional staff loyalty to the corporation, through short-term contracts and sweeping, insensitively-handled redundancies.

As for BBC World Service, it is easy to see why the DG seems so determined to bring it to heel.

He is a man with an engineer's obsession with tidiness and order and World Service is not that sort of organisation; it is full of eccentric, extraordinary minds with a will of their own.

Sir John Tusa, Sam Younger's high-profile predecessor at Bush House, regarded [Lord Birt] with ill-concealed contempt and in the days when he was plain John Birt, Deputy Director-General, Tusa gave him a "hands off Bush House" warning that has never been forgotten or forgiven.

Sam Younger, through no fault of his own, is a victim of both the Birt-Tusa feud and Birt's obsession with tidy structures.

In the aftermath of the shock restructuring of World Service in June 1996, Younger was publicly assailed by Tusa and many World Service staffers for failing to resign on a matter of principle.

Younger had not been consulted about the changes, nor even told about them until the very last moment, and it is widely-held and plausible view that Birt banked on Younger falling on his sword, allowing him to be immediately replaced by someone more in the DG's own image.

A kindly and approachable manager, Younger stayed on and worked diligently to make the restructuring work, managing at the same time to repair much of the damage done to relations with his staff.

He demonstrated his modernising credentials by overseeing the recently-announced re-branding of World Service and the proposals for a news and current affairs channel, World Service Two.

If there were any criticism of him it was that he needed to be tougher. And at the Corporate Centre, his attempts to convey the unique spirit of World Service to fell on unsympathetic ears.

We can, therefore, assume that this failure to demonstrate the required toughness and to wholeheartedly embrace the Birt Philosophy, was ultimately his undoing. To survive as a Birt lieutenant, it is necessary to be, and to be seen to be, a true believer.

Mark Byford, aged 40, is by all accounts, a talented broadcast manager - described by some as the acceptable face of Birtism - but challenging times lie ahead.

He has arrived from his job as Director of English Regional Broadcasting to discover that his ousted predecessor has gone and will not, as the BBC press release declared, "be leaving the BBC towards the end of the year". He also finds himself in the midst of a group of shocked and demoralised journalists and broadcasters from all points of the globe.

Among other things, Byford inherits a explosive issue: plans to reduce the number of foreign language services - there are currently 43 -- to fund other aspects of the World Service operation.

This is being complicated by his discovery that the Director in charge of language services, Andrew Taussig, is on extended sick leave.

To the majority of the 2,500 staff in Bush House, the BBC is not any old broadcaster. It is a shining light in a dark world to be nurtured and loved. They cannot understand why something that even Lady Thatcher admired as a national asset should be so relentless hammered from within.

No sensible person would deny that in the days when BBC World Service was known as External Services, it was a complacent, often arrogant, organisation.

It, and the rest of the BBC, probably needed Birt or a Birt-like figure to rattle the cages, but five years of this would have been more than enough.

The events of the past week has demonstrated once again that [Lord Birt] belongs to another time and another vocation. He would have made a most effective First World War general - remorselessly sending troops into battle, many never to be seen again.

Such behaviour may win wars, but it is hardly the way to run a public broadcasting service of the BBC's global stature. After all, it is not Sir John's BBC. As the corporation is fond of reminding us, it is Our BBC, and in the case of Bush House, the World's BBC.

* Sam Younger later went on to take leading roles in the Electoral Commission and Charity Commission and in November 2014 was appointed to the board of the charity Voluntary Service Overseas.

-- Ian Richardson is a former senior journalist and manager with BBC World Service radio and television. He is now a screenwriter and book author.

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