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John Birt

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John Birt

For the Australian politician, see John Birt (politician).

John Birt, Baron Birt (born 10 December 1944) is a former Director-General of the BBC who was in the post from 1992 to 2000.

After a successful career in commercial television, first at Granada Television and then at LWT, Birt was appointed Deputy Director-General of the BBC in 1987 for his current affairs expertise. The forced departure of Director-General Alasdair Milne following pressure from the Thatcher government[1] required someone at the top, preferably from outside the BBC, with editorial and production experience (Milne had been summarily replaced by Michael Checkland, an accountant).

During his tenure as Director-General, Birt restructured the BBC, in the face of much internal opposition. However, he is credited with saving the corporation from possible government sell-off, and properly equipped it to face the digital age. Birt was Strategic Advisor to Prime Minister Tony Blair from 2001 to 2005.

Early life and commercial television career

John Birt was born in Liverpool to a Catholic father, a manager at the Firestone tyre company, and a Protestant mother. He was raised a Roman Catholic, and educated at the direct-grant grammar school St Mary's College, Liverpool and St Catherine's College, Oxford, where he received a third-class degree in engineering.

From 1966 to 1971 Birt worked at Granada Television, where he devised and produced the magazine programme Nice Time before joining Granada's flagship documentary strand World in Action. Here he persuaded Mick Jagger, who had just, spent three nights in Brixton prison for possession of drugs, to be filmed in conversation with the editor of The Times (William Rees-Mogg) and the Bishop of Woolwich (John A. T. Robinson), among others, for a programme hailed as a "dialogue between generations".[2] Birt in 1969 became joint editor of World in Action with Gus McDonald.

In 1971 Birt moved from Granada to London Weekend Television, where he was founding editor and executive producer of the current affairs programme Weekend World. He became head of current affairs at LWT and, later, controller of features and current affairs. With Weekend World presenter Peter Jay, Birt contributed a series of three articles to The Times on the topic of television journalism. They argued that most television news and current affairs contained a "bias against understanding": pictures had taken precedence over analysis. Instead they advocated "a mission to explain." This style became known as “Birtism”. Makers of news and documentary programmes were required to outline their finished product in writing before setting out with the cameras. In the mid-1970s he took a break from LWT to produce David Frost's interviews with disgraced former US President Richard Nixon. In the 1977 interviews, watched by 45 million people, Nixon admitted his part in the scandal which had led to his resignation two years earlier.[3]

Birt returned to LWT as director of programmes in 1982. During this period he revived the career of his old friend, the Liverpool singer Cilla Black, who in due course became the highest paid female performer on UK television. Birt formed a close working relationship with his boss at LWT, Michael Grade, although this would later go sour when both worked at the BBC.[4]

BBC career

Birt's success at LWT prompted the BBC's governors to appoint him deputy director-general in 1987 under Michael Checkland. Birt also served as the BBC's director of news and current affairs at this time.

Birt's promotion to Director-General in 1992 caused controversy when it was revealed he was employed on a freelance consultancy basis. Under political and public pressure, Birt became a BBC employee. He had to sell his shares in LWT, losing out on a windfall of what would have been several million pounds when it was bought by Granada in 1994.

As Director General, Birt was tasked with securing the BBC’s future at a time of rapid technical, cultural and economic changes in world broadcasting.[5] In seven years, Birt restructured and modernised the corporation which he wanted to make ‘the best managed public sector organisation’.[6] Birt imposed a policy of radical change to deliver efficiency savings. In April 1993 he introduced Producer Choice, giving programme makers the power to buy services from outside the BBC. This significantly reduced the cost to licence-payers of the BBC's historic, but increasingly inefficient, resource base. Faced with high rental fees from the BBC's record library, producers for a time found it cheaper to buy records from local record shops. In-house facilities were closed or stood idle allegedly as a result of "creative accounting" methods.

Birt was responsible for the modernisation of much BBC output, including the removal from BBC Radio 1 of veteran disc jockeys such as Dave Lee Travis and Simon Bates. BBC Radio 1 re-branded itself as more youth-oriented, but the station's audience total declined nonetheless. He also drew the World Service into the new BBC-wide structure. The creation of the specialist reporting teams was a significant legacy of Birt's stewardship of BBC News.

Above all, Birt is credited with preparing the organisation for the new landscape shaped by digitalisation – preparations that were “far in advance of the BBC’s terrestrial rivals”, according to media policy expert Georgina Born. At the 1996 Edinburgh Television Festival, Birt said that without the resources to prepare for the digital age, the BBC would be "history".[7] Under Birt, the BBC’s internet and new media activities were launched to almost universal acclaim. By 2005, it was calculated that 47% of all British internet users visited the BBC website regularly. It rapidly became the most used non-portal website outside the United States and the leading content site in Europe.[8] Birt said the changes made the BBC more agile, more competitive and allowed it to expand beyond its traditional broadcasting services. He was one of the driving forces behind the launch of continuous news output and he took money from traditional services to fund the 24-hour news channel and advance on the internet, However, such ventures were criticised by some as being detrimental to BBC core programming.[9]

It has been argued that without Birt's reforms and his ability to accommodate the Thatcher government,[10] the BBC's operating charter might not have been renewed in the 1990s. Birt's advocates include the prominent journalists John Lloyd, John Simpson and Polly Toynbee.[11] Birt's use of impenetrable jargon became known as "Birtspeak", a phenomenon still regularly mocked in the satirical magazine Private Eye, complete with a miniature Dalek caricature of the man himself, a comparison originating from playwright Dennis Potter, who labeled Birt a "croak-voiced Dalek".[12] But television critic Mark Lawson wrote that Potter's "tendency towards unfocused vitriol and noisy self-examination made his contribution easily swattable by the BBC's damage controllers."[13] In the 1993 Christmas tape produced by the BBC's post production department, Birt was portrayed as the Daleks' creator, Davros.[14] Former BBC director and producer David Maloney claimed on the DVD commentary for Genesis of the Daleks that John Birt "succeeded where Davros failed and ruined the BBC".

Many opposed Birt, his methods and his reforms, notably Sir John Tusa, Sir Mark Tully and the late Sir Charles Wheeler, and news correspondent Kate Adie.[15][16] Former BBC Director-General Alasdair Milne said Birt did little good for the BBC besides establishing its internet service, and criticised him for paying consultants a lot of money to restructure the corporation.[17] Radio broadcaster John Churchill Dunn believed morale was bad under Birt, while David Attenborough commented that producers spend too much time worrying about money as a result of Birt’s reforms.[18][19] Barry Norman was very critical of Birt in his memoirs,[20] and Marmaduke Hussey, who appointed Birt to his BBC role, later claimed to have regrets.[21] Birt's changes were partially dismantled by his successors Greg Dyke and Mark Thompson. However, veteran producer Tony Garnett claimed in 2009 that Birt's legacy of “totalitarian micro management” has existed at the BBC ever since.[22]

Birt was awarded a knighthood, and in 1999 a life peerage.[23] He took his seat in the House of Lords in March 2000 as a crossbencher.

Media commentator Steve Hewlett suggested in 2012 that it might be time for the BBC “to bring in Birt 2.0”. Hewlett acknowledged that many of Birt’s reforms were unpopular, but said that without them, “it is questionable whether the BBC would exist in anything like its present capable and competitive form, or indeed would have retained the huge affection of audiences.[24]

Birt received an Emmy in 1995, for his"outstanding contribution" to international television, Arthur Kane,executive director of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences,said: "Mr Birt will be cited for his role in re-affirming the importance of public broadcasting while undertaking arduous reforms at the BBC and leading the campaign for the renewal of its charter, thereby ensuring the continuation of the BBC's historical standards of excellence into the next century.[25]

Following Director General George Entwistle’s resignation in November 2012, James Purnell argued the new Director General “should learn from the Birt era” stating it was Birt’s “boldness” that saved the BBC. Instead of playing it safe and avoiding mistakes, he said, Birt transformed output and embraced the internet, and rebuilt relationships with government, business and the public.[26]

Post-BBC career

Birt was brought into Number 10 to lead the development of long-term strategy for the government on key areas of public policy. Tony Blair asked him to produce a report on solutions to crime, and he served as advisor on Criminal Justice from 2000–2001. The establishment of a Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) was an idea originally conceived by Birt.[27]

Birt was made unpaid Strategy Adviser to Prime Minister Blair in 2001, appointed for what was termed "Blue Skies thinking" and claimed by Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to be "worth every penny";[28][29] Blair wanted advice from outside the traditional Whitehall mindset – he had known Birt since the 1980s and approved of his analytical approach. Jeremy Heywood, Blair’s principal private secretary, said: “He liked the way that John was willing to get right down into the data and understand the evidence, and come up with a real sense that you could do things in a totally different way.”[30] Birt supervised the development of long-term strategy on drugs, health, crime reduction, education, transport and London. His 2004 report on drug policy recommended making heroin use a criminal offence on par with possession.[31]

However, Birt's recommendations made him unpopular with some ministers and Blair’s decision to ask Birt for a ‘private’ report on crime irritated Jack Straw and the Home Office.[32] In 2002 he proposed a second network of motorways operated as tolls to counter the problems of traffic congestion.[33]

Many saw Birt's role in government as controversial, since as a special advisor, rather than a civil servant, he is not formally obliged to face questions from House of Commons Select committees. In October 2002 it emerged that the government had specifically asked him not to appear in front of the transport select committee, at a time when he was in charge of long-term transport strategy.

Blair asked Birt to help him define his main domestic policy priorities so he could develop precise plans for the period after the 2005 election. Birt had first proposed the idea of the ‘five-year plans’ in 2003 and was now responsible for overseeing the Third Term Plan. This included the overall policy programme, machinery of government changes and the legislative timetable. A special project team to develop the third term was led by Birt and Turnbull and reported regularly to the PM. Birt’s team produced detailed proposals with a precise grid on how to implement policy.

Birt served as an advisor at McKinsey & Company's Global Media Practice from 2000-2005. His relationship with government and McKisney caused some controversy as McKinsey were increasingly working with UK government departments in a range of public service and defence areas.[34] Birt remained at Number 10 as an unpaid adviser until December 2005, when he left to join private equity firm Terra Firma Capital Partners as an adviser.

The Financial Times reported at the beginning of July 2005 that Birt's office ceiling at No 10 Downing Street had fallen in. However, Birt was not injured.[35]

Returning to his earlier career on 26 August 2005, Birt delivered his second MacTaggart lecture at the Edinburgh International Television Festival. Partly a review of his professional life as a broadcaster, he also criticised the "tabloidisation" of intellectual concerns. More importantly, he argued that Channel Four should receive financial help, in order to preserve "public service broadcasting", which was taken as advocacy of the BBC sharing its licence fee with Channel Four. He also mentioned that his long standing feud with Michael Grade had been resolved, but the speech as a whole was not admired by many figures in the industry.[36]

From 2006-2010 he was an adviser for consulting firm Capgemini on strategic issues, with a focus on the public sector and its Telecom, Media and Entertainment practice.[37] Birt served as chairman of Lynx New Media (subsequently Lynx Capital Ventures) from 2000-2004. He was chairman of Waste Recycling Group and subsequently non-executive director of Infinis, one of the UK's leading generators of renewable power. He also served chairman of Maltby Capital from 2007-2010.[38]

Birt has been chairman of PayPal Europe since 2010, having joined the board in 2004. He is also an independent director of Eutelsat, which he joined in 2006.

In 2006, Lord Birt joined the consulting firm Capgemini. He will advise the firm, with a focus on its consulting services in the public sector and telecom, media and entertainment.[39]

Birt is an active cross-bencher in the House of Lords, speaking out in 2011 and 2012 in favour of government's proposed Health and Social Care Bill.[40] Birt's special interests include the Media/ Broadcasting/ Communications Industry, Climate Change/ Environment, Criminal Justice and Education.[41]

In 2013 Birt voiced his opinion to the House of Lords about his views on the Gay Marriage bill stating ‘this bill goes the whole hog and rightly allows gay couples, if they wish, to make the powerful statements of love and commitment that marriage proclaims. If gay couples want that option, they should have it.’[42]

Private life

John Birt's first wife was the American-born Jane Lake. They met in 1963, whilst she was an art student at Oxford. The couple married in Washington, D.C. in 1965, and have two children, Eliza and Yahya (formerly Jonathan) Birt.

In April 2005, Birt admitted a twelve-month affair with Eithne Wallis, a divorced mother of three and a former head of the National Probation Service.[43] Birt admitted adultery in his court papers.

Birt and Wallis' marriage took place on 16 December 2006 at Islington Register Office. It was attended by neither set of children. A reception was held after the ceremony at the fashionable London St John restaurant in Smithfield,[44] attended by, among others, the politician Peter Mandelson and Trevor Philips, chairman of the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights, both former colleagues at LWT.

Portrayals in fiction

In the 2007 play Frost/Nixon on Broadway, Birt was played by actor Rene Auberjonois. In the 2008 film adaptation Frost/Nixon, he was played by Matthew Macfadyen.



External links

  • John Birt's MacTaggart Lecture 2005
  • Ian Hargreaves
  • Peter Bazalgette in The Observer, October 27, 2002
  • Announcement of his introduction at the House of Lords
Media offices
Preceded by
Michael Checkland
Director-General of the BBC
Succeeded by
Greg Dyke

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