(First published in The
Independent, London, June 23, 1997)
TUSA AND THE "SAVE WORLD SERVICE CAMPAIGN"
World Service Managing-Directors have made a renewed attack on the
breakup of the BBC's World Service, calling for the changes to be
reversed. Once again, John Tusa, Managing-Director from 1986-1992
led the charge. Ian Richardson asks if it is now time for
Tusa, his one-time boss, to let his successors sort out their problems
I am not, by inclination,
a believer in Golden Ages, but I am convinced that if World Service
had a Golden Age, it was during the time when John Tusa was Managing-Director.
The trouble is that he believes that this was entirely down to him,
which it wasn't.
Tusa had the good
fortune to have more than his fair share of luck and the backing
of some highly skilled deputies. Additionally, world events conspired
to convince Margaret Thatcher that the World Service was somehow
not part of the despised BBC and therefore worthy of generous additional
Tusa's great strengths
as head of World Service were his extraordinary charisma, his effortless
ability to move in circles at all levels of society, and his inspirational
leadership. But much of this would have been for nought without
the other two members of the World Service triumvirate, his deputy
managing-director, David Witherow, and the man responsible for strategy,
Anthony Rendall. Their contribution was to dissuade Tusa from his
visionary excesses while developing and implementing those ideas
that could be made to work.
For most of us
at Bush House, working with John Tusa was both uplifting and fun,
but his many friends and admirers recognise that he is in possession
of a substantial ego garnished with a large serving of vanity. And
above all, he believes - apparently without qualification - that
he, not John Birt, should be running the BBC.
It is here that
the problem lies: the two Johns dislike each other with a vengeance,
having fallen out very soon after John Birt was recruited from London
Weekend Television to be Deputy Director-General. They are overall
very different people, but they have two identical, key personality
traits: Both are driven by a need for public recognition; both are
men apparently devoid of self-doubt.
between Birt and Tusa now gives every appearance of being the driving
force behind Tusa's continued backing for the "Save World Service
Campaign". Does he truly think that the re-structuring, imposed
without warning a year ago, can now be undone? Or is this simply
creating mischief for Birt with the side benefit of some personal
There seems every
chance that history will judge John Birt's stewardship of the BBC
very harshly. He has much to answer for, not least his destruction
of any sense of true loyalty to what was, and to some extent still
is, one of the world's finest organisations, broadcasting or otherwise.
But we won't know for sure, perhaps for a decade or more.
In a recent Guardian
Essay, John Tusa accuses Birt and BBC Chairman, Sir Christopher
Bland, of Thatcherite behaviour and adds "Thatcherism is history".
Yet he behaves like the Lady herself in constantly implying that
his successors at Bush House have somehow failed to show the backbone,
imagination and managerial skill that he would have displayed were
he still in charge.
The clear message
from his written and spoken pronouncements is that he would have
seen Birt off - which seriously fails to recognise the completeness
of last year's iron-fisted revolution.
The present World
Service Managing-Director, Sam Younger, has been confronted by an
appalling situation with problems that John Tusa had the good fortune
to never face. Younger was hardly in place before he had to fight
off an ultimately-unsuccessful attempt by the Foreign Office to
renege on part of the agreed funding. Then he found himself publicly
humiliated by John Birt who kept him in the dark about the re-structuring
until the very last moment.
There is no denying
that Younger failed to show the leadership his staff expected of
him in the days immediately after the re-structuring was announced.
He appeared a beaten man who had no idea what to do next.
The chorus of
calls - made with the strongly implied backing of Tusa - that Younger
should have made a principled stand by resigning would have been
both ludicrous and instantly self-defeating. Anyone who has watched
the way the present DG works knows that the resignation would have
been accepted with enthusiasm and alacrity and that a Birt placeman
would have been in Bush House by the end of that day's business.
A manager more
flamboyant than Younger could arguably have handled the situation
with greater imagination, but that doesn't mean that he is intrinsically
a bad manager. From my experience he is not. He is a capable, friendly
person from a solid production and management background. He understands
his global audience and has a genuine long-term loyalty to World
Service and its staff. Given a different set of circumstances, his
position would be unquestioned and entirely secure.
Younger has much
to be proud of. Although in charge of an organisation going through
an identity crisis, anyone listening to World Service, as I do frequently,
will recognise that its programmes are increasingly modern and audience-friendly,
with their authority undiminished. The latest figures show World
Service with an audience of 143-million regular listeners - up 23-million
since John Tusa's day. World Service's internal structures may be
going through radical and disruptive changes, but its programmes
continue to satisfy and pull in the crowds.
Tusa should now
ask himself whether his actions are really helping the BBC World
Service. In my view he should back off and let things be. He has
what I assume is a full-time job as Managing-Director of the Barbican
Centre. No doubt the Barbican staff would welcome the knowledge
that they have his full attention.