Almost a national joke, he has an unBritish bent for solving puzzles methodically, yet also has fier
As director general of the BBC, John Birt became the most detested public figure of his generation. Relaunched as Baron Birt of Liverpool, he must have hoped that in semi-retirement things might start to look up. Instead, he finds himself something of a national laughing-stock. Turned into a personal oracle by a Prime Minister still uncertain of direction after five years in power, his owlish lordship has metamorphosed into a Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque Lord High Answer-to-Everything, tiptoeing into Downing Street unpaid to impart secret solutions to the problems of the age.
Birt has already, to catcalls and jeers, provided a cure for crime. Any day now, he will be putting Blair right on transport. His absence of experience in this field has already provoked much merriment. Thereafter will come the great man's memoirs. Expect a feast of derision, with reviewers seizing delightedly on choice examples of "Birtspeak". And yet, such are the workings of Blairocratic government that Birt's policy prescriptions are likely to have more impact on our lives than the efforts of most cabinet ministers. Cultivated opinion vastly prefers Greg Dyke as DG of the BBC; yet, though Dyke joins in the mockery of his predecessor, it is Birt's grand design that he is choosing to follow. Something here is not quite right. If his lordship is worthy only of loathing or ridicule, how come he is afforded so much sway?
Part of the answer to this puzzle lies in the uniqueness of the Birt phenomenon. We reward with our affection those participants in the national soap opera who conform to a familiar stereotype. They can be wicked or witless, but we demand that they provoke a thrill of recognition. Unfortunately for him, Birt is no diamond geezer like Dyke, or upper-class buffer or jovial rogue-on-the-make. Even after a long acquaintance (too long for many), we still cannot quite place him. The late Dennis Potter's cruel characterisation of him as a "croak-voiced Dalek" was not altogether mistaken. On Planet Britain, Birt is an alien - if not the monster of popular fancy, still an extraordinary one-off, shaped by an unusual conjunction of factors.
John Birt was born in 1944 into a working-class Catholic family in Liverpool's docklands. His father became a salesman and managed to move the family to the relatively polite suburb of Formby, from where John made it, via grammar-school, to Oxford. So far, so straight-forward. But whereas other upwardly mobile undergrads chose to read humanities as a means of soaking up establishment manners, Birt opted for engineering. He later explained that he delighted in solving puzzles methodically. We British associate an analytical bent with nerdish crossword addicts. Yet in Birt, a passion for deductive reasoning was accompanied by burning ambition and the capacity for fierce flashes of creative insight.
Taking these qualities into television, he discovered they could produce unexpected results. After joining Granada as a graduate trainee in 1966, he found himself co-editor of ITV's then top current affairs programme, World in Action, at the age of 23. Poached by Granada's ITV rival, London Weekend Television, he was given the chance to set up a show of his own. For him, Weekend World became an opportunity to deconstruct the whole current affairs genre. From a vehicle for easy sensationalism, he fashioned a tool of civic exposition that lives on in programmes like Channel 4 News and Newsnight.
The incisive oddball powered his way up the LWT ladder. As director of programmes in the 1980s, Birt turned the business of building audiences from a seat-of-the-pants affair into the science based on demographics and number-crunching that it is today. Yet he also made inspired creative judgements, spotting that a retired Sixties songbird (in the shape of Cilla Black) could become the nation's matchmaker, or that a speech-impaired maverick MP (Brian Walden) could become its top political interviewer.
In 1987, Birt went to the BBC as deputy director general, tasked with the overhaul of its journalism. It was in this role that he entered the public imagination as a soulless autocrat grinding creative genius under his jackboot in pursuit of a meaningless master-plan. Veteran journalists, from the India hand Mark Tully to the World Service giant John Tusa, voiced their pain. No matter; Birt was not to be diverted. And the mighty News and Current Affairs directorate he created now presides unchallenged.
So it was to be when, promoted to director general, Birt took his mission to the rest of the BBC. At its sprawling chaos, he threw consultants and management theory. He created an internal market in facilities. He dissuaded Margaret Thatcher from privatisation by sheer force of argument. He positioned the corporation for a leading role in the emerging world of digital broadcasting, and persuaded the Blair government to pay for it through an above-inflation increase in the licence-fee. Today, the BBC that Birt built towers above the rest of British broadcasting. That Blair should now seek Birt's guidance may surprise those familiar only with the calumnies of his enemies; it does not surprise those who have watched him at work.
There is a downside to methodical analysis. However elaborate the model adopted, it can never accommodate all relevant complexities. The logic driving the mincing machine may be perfect, but it will always miss some of the meat. System has certainly failed Birt in one field: self-presentation. Those Armani suits, the studied "jokes" and the baleful grin were part of a plan, but one that was fatally flawed. We delight in such failures because we hate professional players who depend on systems; we prefer gentlemen amateurs who get it right without knowing how. And there is a case for intuition over method: it can take account of the subtleties that great schemes always ignore. Yet the Britain on which Birt unleashed himself was more in need of thought than instinct. The sloppy, wasteful pre-Birt BBC sheltered more mediocrity than genius. Today, who really wants it back?
Birt has been charged with ruthlessness, and not just by thin-skinned creatives. Michael Grade, the BBC's director of television when Birt arrived at the corporation, had been his supportive boss and mentor at LWT. In his autobiography, Grade recalls begging the new deputy DG not to humiliate him by refusing him a say in the appointment of new channel controllers. "I was looking into the eyes of a stranger," writes Grade. "It was as though all the years as colleagues and friends had never been." Grade left the BBC convinced that Birt had deliberately pushed him out, as his only possible rival for the top job. Whether or not this was the case, Birt is not a man to take prisoners. For him, life is not a game: it is for real.
This is not to say he is heartless. On the contrary, he is as susceptible as other Liverpudlians to a rush of emotion. At the funeral of a TV colleague, his was the face awash with tears. He remains devoted to his wife Jane, the talented American painter he met in his first week at Oxford. He worries about his children, who have not exactly followed in father's footsteps. The vilification he has experienced, his detractors will be pleased to learn, has hurt him deeply.
More problematic is the charge of "submissive authoritarianism" - the allegation that, though brutal to those beneath him, Birt sucks up to those above him: that he is, in the words of his former BBC chairman, Duke Hussey, "an arse-licker". According to his critics, Birt's reorganisation of the BBC's journalism was really intended to tame it. Margaret Thatcher did not help matters in this regard by expressing herself as satisfied with his work.
Well, to survivors of a 1950s Catholic childhood, the idea of authority is more than a joke. And Birt does enjoy the society of the powerful. Doubtless, the Liverpool lad is a little in awe of rank, but something else is at work. It is those at the top of organisations - Thatcher, Blair or Birt's favourite walking companion, Lord Burns, the former permanent secretary at the Treasury - who appreciate Birt's untrammelled, analytical insight. Underlings can make do with the conventional wisdom; top people, who must make their own weather, are drawn to Birt as he is to them.
Hence his lordship's current role. It is not to his taste. Acting as gofer to a man he must regard as something of a ninny is hardly the job he would have chosen. After the BBC, he fancied taking apart and reassembling another national institution - if not the NHS, at least the British Library. It was not to be. In spite of his apparently meteoric career, he repels the power-brokers he fails to seduce. Running the BBC was not his choice of career pinnacle: he wanted to be the first boss of Channel 4. His application for the post in 1980 ran to 50, closely typed pages. It terrified the life out of the Channel 4 board, who opted instead for the "safer" Jeremy Isaacs.
Nonetheless, Birt will do Blair proud on transport. Apparently, he will advise that road tolls are the only meaningful answer to congestion and pollution. Naturally, Blair will throw up his hands in horror at the thought of rebellious motoring voters and allegations of penalising the poor. Cue sneers at Birt's heavy-handedness and naivety. Yet he's right, isn't he? Of all our reasons for execrating him, perhaps the most important is a shameful but timeless urge: the impulse to rail against the bearer of unwelcome, but necessary, tidings.