John Lloyd contrasts the fashion for corporate consensus with the autocratic styles of John Birt and Tony Blairby John Lloyd / August 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
There is a curious dichotomy in the world of management. On one side, a new consensus is building in favour of companies with an inclusive, “stakeholding” culture, stressing relationships within and about the corporation as much as the size of the profit margins. On the other, we see two figures in our national life, both modern men, running organisations whose management styles are regarded as autocratic, secretive and peremptory.
The two are Tony Blair, leader of the Labour party and John Birt, director general of the BBC. The first is forced marching his party through a series of changes which have set off squeals of rage and despair muted by the need for pre-electoral discipline. The second is impelling his organisation through a continuing reorganisation (“bureaucratic vandalism,” according to John Tusa) designed to separate production from broadcasting so that producers have to buy programmes from programme providers.
Why are these two men behaving in ways so counter to the new nostrums of management culture? Because, in differing ways, they think that they have a vision of their “product” which their colleagues lack. Paradoxically, the fact that their colleagues are often highly intelligent and passionate about their work means that their leaders regard them with the more suspicion.
Within the BBC, passion was spent upon serving particular constituencies. In the case of the World Service-where plans to separate its production function from the network have spurred street protests-this meant a fierce loyalty to the region covered.
In an article in the Observer on the World Service, Mark Tully, a former India correspondent and prominent critic of Birt, compared his treatment at the hands of the World Service and domestic radio editors. The former had agreed with him; the latter had tried to force a centrally determined agenda upon him-in true Birtian fashion.
I once worked for Birt in the 1970s, when he was head of current affairs at London Weekend Television. Like many others working on the shows he then produced-Weekend World, the London Programme, Credo-I had a very high regard for him. He had created Weekend World, with Peter Jay as presenter, in conformity with his view that the issues of modern life should be explained more clearly to television viewers. He believed that those who were responsible for areas of public life should be made to account for themselves; not by being badgered, but by being patiently led…