Published: 30 Jul 2007
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010
The nation has a love-hate relationship with the Beeb. We pay for it, it irritates us, it lets us down… and yet we turn to it again and again at times of national (or international) crisis. We expect it to be there for us in a way that private sector broadcasters (ITV, Sky) never will be. And when you compare the cost of a licence fee (just over £2 a week) with what you have to cough up for a Sky subscription, then its value is immediately clear.
It's a cliché, but it's true: the BBC remains the envy of the world. So what has gone wrong? Last week Sir John Tusa, former head of BBC World Service, popped up to name Lord (as he then wasn't) Birt, former director general, as the guilty man. Birt certainly brutalised the corporation - I know, I was working there at the time - and introduced the system, known as "producer choice", which fundamentally broke down the BBC's cosy but time-honoured way of doing things.
It is true that in the rush to compete and justify its existence, the BBC has found itself doing things that it ought not to have done, behaving in a way that betrays its public service ethos. Some of that shift in approach must be down to the attitudes that Birt introduced into the corporation.
But Birt also brought necessary discipline to an unsustainable BBC. He imagined the digital future at a time when few others in the British media were looking that far ahead. And BBC On-Line, as well as BBC News 24, BBC3, 4 and other new channels, have all been made possible by Birt's clear-sightedness. The licence fee would be under even more pressure today, and on the brink of losing its legitimacy altogether, had John Birt not existed.
And yet: babies and bathwater. The BBC is a less happy, less confident place than it used to be. It is, in fact, now much more like a private sector business, and less like a public service broadcaster. A pre-Birt BBC would not have jumped up and down to pretend it had got pictures of the Queen storming out of a photo-shoot. Those cosy old, cardy-clad managers would not have allowed it.
The best bosses help organisations to change without destroying the valuable bits that are worth preserving. But Birt's BBC went and chucked the baby out with the bathwater. That's the last time we let him to do the baby-sitting.
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