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Wednesday, 2 February, 2000, 10:54 GMT
Has Birt been good for the BBC?
Sir John Birt has delivered an upbeat report on the state of the BBC as he prepares to leave the corporation after eight years at the helm.
In his final round of interviews, Sir John said he had no regrets and that the BBC was creatively stronger, better managed and a global force meeting the challenges of the digital revolution.
Sporting rights may have been lost, but Sir John maintains the licence fee payer would not have tolerated vast expenditure on high profile events at the expense of other parts of the BBC's output.
But these are not universally held views - others say that his drive for efficiency has undermined the BBC's reputation and that a top-heavy management has strangled the creative process.
Here are some of the responses from BBC News Online users
In the year 2000 we are living in a state that charges a compulsory fee to watch a TV. Vans are driven around the streets to monitor us in case we haven't got this license. If we haven't we can be put in jail! The BBC has become an arrogant, wasteful, biased organisation cosseted by this nonsense. It takes our money and then abuses its position to push its own narrow cultural agenda i.e. pro-Euro, pro-Blair, anti-US etc. The BBC is using its publicly funded position in this way because it is petrified of the free market and wants to exercise protectionism by political manipulation.
"If you genuinely don't like the BBC, please take control of your own life and go somewhere else" An interesting opener from Greg Dyke. Will this mean that the BBC will end its TV license monopoly and give everybody the right to choose whether they want the BBC?
I would love to take control and have the freedom of choice but alas, this is not and probably never will be the case.
Birt, contrary to his claims, has debased a once great public service broadcasting service, bringing it down to the level of and below its commercial competitors. During his period of office, he has spent tens of millions of pounds on an assortment of ill conceived enterprises, ranging from the unwatched 24 hour news service to management consultant fees resulting in the creation of the ludicrous internal market. The end result of Birt's reign is the departure of some of its brightest and best producers, programme makers and presenters and the demoralisation of those who have stayed on. Sports, drama and music have been scaled down to the bare minimum. The best comedy is seen in 10-year-old repeats. Peak time viewing consists of cheap to make docu-soaps and life style programmes. Already knighted in spite of a highly unorthodox interpretation of fiscal matters, he has now been ennobled! Good luck Mr Dyke. The organisation that you inherit is in most ways a much weaker one than that passed to Birt
J.Lloyd Jones, UK
I am glad to see the man go. I would have preferred he was given a prison sentence than a knighthood, but it was not (alas) my decision. I only fear that the man who has replaced him may be even worse. For all his faults Mr Birt had an intellectual agenda, a vision. I fear that what we will see instead is the serving of a thousand masters, in the best tradition of Blairism.
I've just read all the previous comments, and most are very critical of Sir John Birt. It appears he sacrificed sports programming to finance technological changes, but of course, here in America we don't see that loss, we only know the Beeb for it's fine news services and certain drama productions and old sitcoms on PBS.
I hold no candle for John Birt: he and his kind were the grey-suited accountant-types that made me flee the UK in the first place. However, be assured that around 40% of the output of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is direct from the BBC. And it's not just old repeats either. The BBC must therefore still be doing something right! In the end, however, I suspect it may be doing so despite Birtism, rather than because of it.
Howard Rogers, Australia
Sir John's priorities have been to take the BBC into the digital age and let's face it, this he has done at the licence fee payers expense. The Beeb's rush to be the first has sacrificed money for programming and this has affected television sports coverage particularly badly. The BBC's rush to be a world leader in digital broadcasting has sadly let down the British public who expect quality programming for the money they're forced to spend to watch TV. In this age of competitiveness and technology, why can't we just pay for Sky if we want it and the BBC if we'd like that too? Sir John's tenure has seen programming at local, regional and national level sacrificed to better its image at home and abroad. "the bbc doesn't want to be left behind" AHHH didums!!!
We, the licence payers are being ripped off at the moment and i join the masses in calling for the pricey licence fee to be scrapped. The Government shouldn't just expect people to pay up in order to watch television. I personally want to take my business elsewhere.
Did his arrival make any difference? Will his departure? Surely the directorship of the BBC is another "jobs for the boys" scenario...a symbol of the outdated modes of the establishment.
Mr (now Sir) Birt, has done very little to improve the overall quality of the BBC. It was in good shape before he arrived on the scene and all it needed was a little pruning to avoid unnecessary waste of money. The range and choice of TV and Radio has been very good over the past 10 or so years. When Mr Birt was appointed he appeared to completely ignore the voices of experienced staff of not only the BBC itself but also majority of the listening public as well. This, in my opinion was unforgivable. One only needs to listen to some of the feedback programmes in which listeners views are voiced, to hear their views.
As so often happens someone is appointed to a high profile such as the BBC and the only real thing that happens is that the individual involved ends up with a suitable honour as a reward and, of course, a good financial packet!
I should say that I depend on BBC America for objective news and programmes. Things that are very hard to find in the US media. I hope the BBC won't adopt commercial styles like CNN and Sky television. Which are purely commercial entities.
Compared to the incumbent he seems like a dream choice.
He was a full-timer,
spoke good English,
did not speculate in bankrupt property stock, did
not introduce "Roland Rat" or "The Gladiators" is not "owed one" by politicians who became Prime Ministers to whose election he contributed profusely.
The BBC is stronger than ever. It has
lost its radiophonics workshop, its
costume department, many sports
shows (such as formula 1 racing),
the longest-running sci-fi show in the
world, all creativity and all sense of
direction. You can't have any
weaknesses if you have nothing at
Birt has left the UK poorer for his stewardship of the BBC. At the beginning of his tenure CNN were behind the BBC in both name recognition and news dominance. Had Birt elected to compete with CNN and build a world network the profits could have gone to saving the FA Cup and other sporting events. The BBC at the start of Birt's tenure were the dominant news organisation in the world, now they are reduced to a poor third place behind CNN & Fox.
Martin Dibluecity, Canada
The worst thing that John Birt ever did was curb freedom of speech about Peter Mandelson. Some public service! Also, we've had endless docu-soaps, an increase in the license fee, Zoe Ball on the radio, increase in the fee for Digital subscribers and ever more endless detective series. I won't miss a person who has managed to alienate his own staff and his viewers. Dump the licence fee as we pay for trash!
I don't think the British public realises how well respected the BBC is abroad, or how it stands head and shoulders above what is available in most other countries. Perhaps we will only realise what we have if it were to disappear, and that for me would be a very sad day. As a public service organisation whatever the BBC does someone will be for or against, damned if it does, damned if it doesn't! The BBC must be succeeding; you only have to hear the continual criticisms from the commercial operators. All I can say is keep up the good work!
Malcolm Parker, UK
The decline in BBC sport is sad, but with such so much money from commercial broadcasters, this has out-priced the BBC. But looking at the wider picture a positive note, the Drama output during the Birt years has been superb. The Cops, Undercover Heart and This Life to name but three have proved the BBC to be a high quality broadcaster with an international reputation for excellence.
John Birt has done to the BBC what all managers have done recently; appointed MORE managers who are all "YES MEN". TV quality has fallen considerably over the period of his power. Series such as Fools and Horses, Ever Decreasing Circles have been dropped for live action video of boring people doing stupid things on camera. A scythe to the managers and power to the TALENTED, that's what I say.
John Birt was a victim of circumstance. A lot of criticism has headed his way in this Forum, but the fact is the way the BBC is funded is fundamentally flawed and this can only get worse. Birt has tried to protect the licence fee, it's the underlying reason for everything he's done and ultimately, in a world of thousands of digital channels, globalisation, media consolidation, programmes on demand etc. the BBC simply won't be able to compete with licence funds alone.
The BBC seems to be in a completely Catch-22 situation. If it makes quality programmes (e.g. in-depth news, documentaries and good drama) then its ratings fall so that it can no longer justify the licence fee. On the other hand if it makes the sort of rubbish that increases ratings (e.g. soaps and game shows) then people say there's no point to the BBC, as the private sector can do that sort of thing just as well. The only answer to this conundrum would be to scrap the licence fee and pay for the BBC out of general taxation.
Edwin Tudsbery, France
Years ago, prime time BBC television had loads of arts programmes, informative documentaries, inspiring series, sitcoms which made you laugh, excellent chat shows, etc etc.
Wall to wall gardening/interior design shows, soaps, too much "docu-soap" guff, virtually no music shows, holiday programmes, dire sitcoms featuring past-it, unfunny has-beens from the eighties "alternative" comedy scene, and films we've seen so often watching them can make you ill.
Thank you for presiding over it all, Mr Birt.
He should have placed as much emphasis on the domestic output of the BBC as he did with his 'global' output and immediately scrapped non-viable programs such as News 24. They should have also gone into partnership with an IT company to push their digital technology rather than waste their own money trying to compete with the likes of SKY. Saving those millions would enable the funding for all of the TV rights that they have lost.
Well I'll only have been 12 years old when Birt took over, and at that age I didn't pay much attention to what channel I was watching. However, I now believe that the BBC is certainly the best broadcasting organisation that I know of. The news and current affairs coverage is excellent, particularly compared to that of other channels. I'm proud of the BBC, and hope it will continue to provide an excellent service for years to come.
It is difficult to judge John Birt since he was at the helm during the mass expansion of non-terrestrial and commercial TV. Tied to the Charter, his funding options are limited and whilst commercial input is banned the BBC will continue to lose programming in all areas. The license fee is in no way extortionate if one realises that advertising blatantly works, and "free TV" is a myth since people will end up buying their products. Whilst the charter is in place, his successors will be strained to the same extent as he was. It is inconceivable now that the government will retain, let alone extend, the charter when it expires since this would be un-conducive to free competition. The BBC requires a leader who will enable them to enter the commercial age with dignity.
John Cloke, UK
There is something deeply dubious about the head of a public sector company contracting his services out, as John Birt did, as if he were a limited company.
Nothing could be more symbolic of his attitude towards the BBC during his time.
Every underpaid or freelance foreign correspondent is worth at least two of him, yet he was paid at least ten times as much as them...
Every morning I turn on my PC and go straight to the BBC Online site for the news ... while CNN Headline News is on the TV behind me in the background. What I find amazing is the absolute awfulness of CNN ... the lead story this morning being the plight of the Cuban boy, followed by the issue of abortion in the presidential debates; both of which are media inspired stories and not something the average American gives a hoot about. BBC Online, on the other hand, leads with a world news story (Sri Lanka). If only my local cable company would carry the BBC! The fact that Sir John invested in the BBC Online service and has made some inroads into the US cable system, gives him a big thumbs up from me.
No Birt has not been good for the BBC. He has done an appalling job at the BBC but is too absorbed in himself to recognise that fact. That he should now be promoted to the House of Lords so that the country can "benefit" from his wisdom raises doubts about the intelligence of those who decided on such an unwise course.
Let's hope that the Beeb can recover lost ground before its too late - assuming that its not too late already.
Birt has been a brilliant success - breaking down the entrenched, nepotistic hierarchies of the "old" BBC (which seemed to be intent on making the programs it thought we should have, rather than the programs people wanted to have) and dragged them kicking and screaming into business readiness for the 21st century. It's sad, however, that he wasn't allowed to make the final step of taking the BBC forward as a stand-alone business instead of continuing to have to depend on state handouts via the licence-fee.
Pete Morgan-Lucas, Wiltshire, UK
My goodness, how overwhelmingly negative are the comments on balance so far! And here comes another one. I have lived in the Far East for more than 30 years and the Beeb has been my main link with the country of my birth. I have watched it decline rapidly in terms of production standards and programme content over the past eight years that Birt has reigned. I say good riddance to the man. Let us hope that the spirit of the Beeb has not been so badly crushed that recovery is impossible.
I believe he has presided over a period of accelerating decline in quality and standards. He has brought nothing in terms of vision or (Reithian) values - whilst building up what appears to be a faceless bureaucracy.
The BBC has been a major cultural influence in my life but now - with it's stewardship passing from a faceless apparachik to the creator of Roland Rat - I am in despair.
Thanks to John Birt the BBC now is really of poor quality. BBC 1 and 2 may as well just be another two channels on Satellite. It is a shame that I am forced to pay £9/month for this rubbish, Murdoch gives me much better value; £12/m for over 50 channels and access to PPV! Plus, Murdoch doesn't force you to carry his channels on your TV, you have some choice, at least!
Philip Kreil, UK
Whilst John Birt has been in control at
the BBC, we have seen a rise in licence
fee's, whilst 'normal' TV has, if anything,
declined in overall quality. Productions
such as the Teletubbies, the poor quality
of televised comedy, films and most particularly
sport have been the downful of John Birt.
The BBC, at one time, famous for its
quality coverage of all great sports, not just football,
has shown how poor Birt has been. However,
BBC Online is excellent, and Radio 1 to 5
have remained far better than anything else
on the air.
It changed from moral and pro-patria to the opposite.
Birt made a number of dreadful decisions and annoyed programme makers. However he has been absolutely fantastic in other areas. He had the sense to invest in the online side of the BBC, and whilst everyone is up in arms about News 24 and the other digital channels they forget that the investment is for the future!
In that respect Birt has strengthened the Beeb for the 21st century. To just lie back and wait for these technological revolutions to happen would have been far far worse.
The BBC was my lifeline while living in Japan for 7 years. My father taped programmes and sent them to me. Upon coming to live in the U.S. I assumed I would no longer need the videos of BBC programmes, the 60 channels I have being adequate. I was mistaken. Attempting to watch American TV programmes between numerous, extremely loud and never-ending commercials, is quite depressing. News coverage here is shocking in its shallowness, sensationalism and absence of foreign coverage. The BBC is the world standard for excellence in broadcasting and though not having had access to the full variety of programmes, I believe John Birt has managed to maintain the quality that BBC is known for. BBC online is fantastic!
Ingrid Cuthbert, USA
John Birt was given the job in order to put the boot into the corporation (he was not even a member of staff until rumbled by the press). History will however rightly judge him as a disaster, because he has virtually destroyed a once great and admired institution.
Producer Choice was simply a means of making thousands of dedicated and skilled staff redundant and a small number of independent production companies very rich. Like all tyrants he appointed a large and overpaid bureaucracy beneath him dependent on his patronage, which instead of offering critical advise instead, slavishly followed his every word. I hope the BBC can now rebuild itself and start by putting on some decent programmes.
I am amazed that people have been so derisory of the BBC especially when they have just used the licence fee service to say so. I am also amazed at the pathetic quality of PAY-TV. When there is no live sport it is either repeat or filler programmes. The only thing PAY-TV has that the BBC doesn't is the ability to buy sports events. As for the BBC's digital channels these are by far and away the best 'other' channels that exist. I say John Birt's reign has been good except the one area that means so much to a high proportion of people and that is sport. I just hope the BBC wins some of it back.
I was with "Sir" John from day one at the BBC. Showed him round the news area of Broadcasting House. He is a silly, vainglorious man who never understood the ethos of broadcasting. He is the Emperor who paraded for eight miserable years without clothes while a cowed staff was picked off and the output reduced to a shambles. The man is a poseur, typical of the London media community. Trained as an engineer he was as useful as a Meccano set without screws.
Mike Farman, New Zealand
I don't see the
problem in losing
sports events. It is
not like live sports
suddenly changed just
because it was broadcasted
on ITV. Better for the
BBC to concentrate on
what it does best:
original, innovative TV
it might be true that they
haven't done much of that
I have noted a steady decline in the quality of BBC programming during John Birt's watch. I would say that the BBC is in much poorer shape. The irony is that he has been amply rewarded for his fairly miserable performance - is he not now a peer?
Please get the good old BEEB out of the gutter. Some of the latest "comedy" productions are quite gross - lavatory humour sprinkled with four letter words. So degrading for the BBC to compete for the lowest common denominator of "entertainment".
Paul Dee, USA
At over £100 for the licence fee, we are paying for a very high quality TV, Radio and On-Line Service. Sir John Birt and clearly shown great commitment and vision to modernising BBC in a time of huge technical change and also with unprecedented commercial pressures.
It is most unfortunate that John Birt thinks he's done a wonderful job. He has contrived to loose virtually all worthwhile sport so he can save money for other productions. It beggars the question what have we the licence payer gained from his stance. Lots of of natty new tunes and programme introductions, Lottery 'Red Alert', some fringe drama's and eh-oh the telly-tubbies.
If he ran an any other TV company where the audience was not compelled to pay that company would be bust in no time at all. He has undermined what is good about the BBC and promoted everything that is extreme, fringe and unpopular. You only have to look at the BBC Radio to see his cold hand destroying what was good because it wasn't 'modern and up to date', and promptly lost huge audiences. I am glad John Birt has gone, not a day to soon.
Richard Popay, England
John Birt has presided over the biggest decline in standards that I can imagine. I am 55 plus years if age, work all day and am constantly disenfranchised by the garbage and constant force feeding of 'commercials' for programmes that have no interest for me.
It is hard to quantify one person's effect on an organisational as large and diverse as the BBC. Much of the BBC's output seems to strike the right chord amongst the vast majority and the Corporation has grudgingly begun to refound its role in educating and informing people instead of the utter rubbish that has besmirched our screens- fly-on-the-wall documentaries and garden/house revamping for example. However, the man who steered the BBC to the abysmal standards that it plummeted to must take responsibility although he hands over a steadily improving corporation. But the cronyism and waste continues, restricting the imagination and breadth of the service's broadcasts.
The BBC represents the highest standards of broadcasting, and is recognised world-wide as a provider of honest, pertinent reporting. John Birt may have moved to popularise much of the presentation, but the fundamentals are still those of the past. The license fee is real value for money!
John Atkins, Brit in Singapore
The BBC has lost its way under the Birt revolution. All I hear is management that do nothing but toe the management line. A lack of investment in creativity, instead wasting money on 'safe bets'. A selection of digital channels which are watched by no one and paid for by the sale of the family silver (BBC Transmitters).
I really liked what the BBC traditionally stood for, but it now seems a pale shadow of what it should be in the face of the commercial onslaught.
Second rate sports events, repetitive soaps, and endless vets programs. Hardly a legacy to be proud of, and certainly not one worth the appalling license fee I have to pay for some of the worst choices on the airwaves.
Bye, bye John Birt - please will the next person give us something of value!
Martin Dart, UK
Well he never privatised the dinosaur did he? It now costs me over £100 per year for just two channels. I also pay further fees for cable. Why? I do not want to have the BBC forced upon me. It should pay its own way, just like ITV!
Yes on the whole I think the BBC is doing quite well. Obviously no one makes all the right decisions but the last two years in particular have been very exciting. Not just for the BBC but for TV in general. The BBC digital services have a lot of potential and I hope that this is realised. I also hope that the BBC is allowed to fund new channels with advertising, it would be great to see the BBC getting the Grand Prix back off ITV.
For losing the FA Cup alone, the man should have been sacked. Let alone F1, Cricket and Golf. The BBC exists to provide programming for everybody and that includes sports fans. His attitude was that sport wasn't for the intelligentsia the BBC was focussing its programming at.
What are his long-standing contributions to other types of BBC programming. Docu-soaps? Comedy ? (What comedy), Drama?
No. I won't miss him.
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