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29 January 2001

Dyke is just Birt with a grin

Has the BBC changed under its genial new director general? Hardly at all is the surprising answer, r

By David Cox

It is a year ago that the BBC celebrated the demise of the hated regime of John (now Lord) Birt, with its grim addiction to managerial nonsense and aloof disdain for creative sensitivities. So, for nearly a year now, the corporation has been luxuriating under the altogether more benign rule of its very different new director general, that ever-affable, no-nonsense, easy-to-talk-to man of the people, Greg Dyke. And on the surface, at least, a great deal has changed.

No more is the air rent by the wails of venerable broadcasters bemoaning their mistreatment at the hands of the Dalek-voiced tyrant and his army of besuited bean-counters. From Television Centre to remote outposts such as the local radio stations (which Dyke actually bothers to visit), grumbling and bitching have given way to paeans of praise to the new Great Leader. “He comes down to the studio.” “He talks to us.” “He listens to what we say.”

Colleagues of one gnarled technician approaching retirement were distressed by the indifference of the relevant line manager to their chum’s lifetime of service. They snitched to Dyke. Instead of loftily being told that such matters were far below the DG’s pay grade, they got the manager thoroughly bollocked and a grand, gold-watch send-off for the loyal operative. Thus has Dyke managed to cheer up one of the most embittered, whiny workforces in the western world.

Virtue has had its reward. Restored internal morale has meant that the fierce public criticism from within the corporation, which did so much to convince the outside world that Birt’s rule was disastrous, has completely dried up. As a result, Dyke’s public image, one year in, is smelling far sweeter than his predecessor’s ever managed to.

So he’s a Tony crony who actually bankrolled the governing party? Well, the innate bias of the BBC’s Oxbridge journalists in favour of new Labour’s values is no worse now than it was under that Thatcher favourite, Birt.

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Admittedly, most of last year’s top shows, such as Big Brother, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and Cold Feet, were not on the BBC. The nearest the corporation came to making broadcasting history was providing an all-day reading of Harry Potter on Radio 4. None the less, good programmes managed to fight their way past the obstacles that the BBC’s asinine corporate behemoth continues to place in their path. Still, if we are to be fair, good programmes also struggled on to the airwaves under the Birt regime. What, then, beyond the mood of the Beeb’s staff, has really changed?

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The perhaps surprising answer is: very little. After Dyke’s own grand reorganisation managed to turn the corporation into 17 divisions, its management structure now looks, if anything, even more impenetrably tortured than it did before. Under Birt, for example, the channel controllers commissioned the shows. Now the controllers’ authority is offset by that of a new tier of genre bosses with “dual-key” powers – which could theoretically mean that no programmes ever get commissioned at all.

Remember Birt’s much-derided internal market, which required producers to pay a notional sum whenever they made use of a BBC service? It’s staying. What’s more, the comfortable lifestyle of the corporation’s panjandrums seems pretty much untouched.

Birt shared Dyke’s distress at the “hideous” whiteness of the BBC’s staff. Both DGs have proved keener to expend energy on politically correct corporate engineering than on laying into hideously unfunny sitcoms, hideously dreary dramas or hideously witless interviewing.

Strangest of all, the iconoclastic new broom from the private sector, who was expected to reconstruct the corporation from scratch, has shown no sign of reappraising, let alone replacing, the corporate philosophy that Birt bequeathed him. The £300m digital roll-out, announced last summer as the new DG’s big idea, actually amounts to changing the names and fiddling with the content of a set of channels already created under Birt. Moving the main TV news to 10pm to facilitate a ratings war was also a plan conceived in the Birt era. Its purpose, like that of the lunge into digital, was to maximise audience share, in pursuit of Birt’s conviction that this was the way to sustain support for the licence fee.

Such strategic continuity might be commendable, if the Birtian approach were likely to prove as effective in the 2000s as it was in the 1990s. Unfortunately, it is not. In Birt’s day, reasonable audiences for whatever the BBC chose to put out were all it took to fend off that awkward question looming over the corporation in a manner increasingly ominous: in an era of ever-growing broadcasting abundance, why do we need this poll-tax funded, nationalised dinosaur?

Now, however, licence-payers who are spending more and more on multichannel film and football packages are growing restive about paying £104 a year for mainstream pap that they no longer watch, and which can claim to fulfil no deeper social or aesthetic function.

Meanwhile, a still more potent threat has also begun to emerge to the old Birt strategy of more viewers at any cost. Commercial broadcasters are becoming increasingly irritated by unfair, state-funded competition aimed directly at undermining their own, often fragile, ventures. The private sector has established ten TV channels exclusively dedicated to children. These channels’ struggle to find an audience has cost lots of money and so far produced little by way of return. Their owners now learn that Dyke plans to spend £41m a year of public money on two “me too” BBC children’s channels – whose purpose will be to grab such teeny viewers as they have so far managed to attract. Understandably enough, they are furious.

Politicians are becoming increasingly reluctant to defend the regressive household tax on which the BBC depends, or to resist the complaints of commercial broadcasters that the way it is being used threatens to throttle a vital industry in its infancy. They are also becoming aware that the spectrum which the BBC occupies is an extremely valuable national resource, which they should not allow to be misused. If the corporation is to survive in this changing environment, it will have to come up with a justification for its continued existence that goes beyond a necessarily declining headcount of viewers and listeners.

Loathed though he may be inside the BBC and out, John Birt, in his final days, succeeded in securing a seven-year, financially comfortable breathing space for the corporation, to last until its funding arrangement and Royal Charter expire in 2006. His successor’s prime task was always going to be to seize this opportunity to construct, articulate and promote a coherent and convincing case for the BBC’s survival beyond that date. By neglecting even to embark on this mission, Greg Dyke has squandered year one of this legacy.

David Cox is an occasional producer of programmes for the BBC