published by The Independent,
London, September 29, 1998)
STRIKE AGAINST WORLD SERVICE
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
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.
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.
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
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
Among other things,
Byford inherits an 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 John 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.
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 John Birt'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.
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.
Richardson is a former senior journalist and manager with BBC World
Service radio and television. He is now a screenwriter and book