The British Broadcasting Corporation: An Overview

By Ian Jones

First published April 2000

Having created and articulated some of the most enduring and endearing motifs of British popular culture since its birth, BBC television came very near to irreversibly squandering its entire reputation in the 13 year period preceding TV24. For much of that time, the Corporation as a whole was battered by the icy winds of Thatcherism and the glorification of market forces, whose cheerleader-in-chief was, for many, John Birt.

From his arrival in 1987 and on through his overlong tenure as Director General, Birt epitomised a methodology that was abhorred by the majority of the BBC’s employees and supporters, past and present. Many inside and outside the Corporation singled him out as a hate figure, responsible for all that was wrong with “Auntie” and whose scalp would be an ideal starting point for a revival of its fortunes.

Though some make a case that it only through Birt’s actions was the BBC saved from wholesale privatisation, much of the ire of his critics seemed justified. Birt did have an obsession with management and introducing numbingly obstinate tiers of bureaucracy which conspired to strangle good-feeling and pride out of the Corporation. His carving up of long-established inner-networks of programme commission and production to create the BBC’s own internal market, plus his penchant for penning dense epistles obsessed with right-wing buzzwords such as “choice” and “competition” were also much-despised.

And although his visions were ostensibly founded on talk of quality programming that would not pander to concerns for ratings, at the end of his rein the BBC seemed to not only be performing badly in terms of audience share, but quality of programming wasn’t any better either.

There was a huge collective sigh of relief when Greg Dyke was announced as Birt’s successor, and even more of a cheer when Birt shuffled off earlier than expected at the end of January 2000 (newly ennobled as Lord Birt). Perhaps now Dyke can pick up the pieces from where the unfairly maligned Alasdair Milne left off, when he was ousted as DG by a Thatcher-initiated conspiracy in 1987. Though neither Milne nor his immediate predecessors came close to emulating the work of Hugh Carlton-Greene, DG in the 1960s and the BBC’s greatest boss to date, all were superior to the bureaucracy and management-satiated agendas of subsequent DGs Michael Checkland and then Birt. Many are looking impatiently, desperately to Greg Dyke to restore much of what is believed to be “great” about the Corporation.

But to do that he needs more money, and the current Labour Government, as in so many other areas of policy, have so far behaved simply like their Tory predecessors: permitting a modest rise in license fee, a little more cash, but ordering yet another round of “slimline” reforms and cutbacks, believing the BBC remains inefficient. Meanwhile the Corporation is having to adapt itself to technological advances in telecommunications which it is both exploiting well – the BBC Online network – and not so well – the nascent digital “channels”. Then there is the pressing issue of digital television itself – and when and how the BBC is, along with other terrestrial broadcasters, to become an non-analogue broadcaster; while the BBC’s Charter itself comes up for renewal in 2006.

This is a critical moment in the BBC’s history as the world’s greatest public service broadcaster. The insights TV24 offers into its two television networks are above all diagnoses of a Corporation in a perilously fragile and bruised condition, with strengths and weaknesses both of which need urgent attending to.

The BBC on 9 March 2000

BBC TV established: 2 November 1936.

Chairman: Sir Christopher Bland
Director-General: Greg Dyke
Director of Television: Alan Yentob
Controller of BBC1: Peter Salmon
Controller of BBC2: Jane Root