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 through the argument they themselves were making so as to expose its deficiencies-and its strengths. Most of us were as much disciples as employees. His nickname, Chalky, was indicative of his intense, heuristic style of programme making, and of his emotional distance.
He would spend huge amounts of time on scripts, the discussions ranging far beyond the issue of the programme to beliefs and trends in economic or political thought. He seemed to care little for the filming side. Words were more important. Once, at about 3am (there was a kind of pride in working all through the night) I saw an instruction from one producer scribbled on a piece of paper to the tape editor in a cutting room: “Put in a shot of peasants doing something in the fields over this section.” One programme I made, on Scottish nationalism, had all the film stripped out of it in favour of a few talking heads interspersed with Peter Jay narrating the all-important text to camera.
Everything was bent to getting at the essence of the story-through discussion, writing and rewriting. Birt, with Jay, formulated his approach in the series of “Bias against understanding” articles, published in The Times. They argued that a reliance on “pictures,” and a penchant for confrontational, uninformative questioning turned discussion of complex events into senseless gladitorial combat.
After ascending in the LWT hierarchy, Birt went to the BBC, to tackle its bias against understanding-which rapidly turned into a bias against Birt himself. He has never conquered that. He remains, after nine years at the BBC, at odds with its deep culture as Blair is at odds with that of his party. Blair succeeds in getting his way by success in the polls and by sheer personal force; Birt by dogged persistence in restructuring to adapt to rapid technological change, intensifying competition and a static income.
Both base their leadership on the claim of being in tune, not with their organisations’ traditional culture, but with the needs of the times. They seek to refashion great institutions, encrusted with layer upon layer of memory, sentiment and myth, into flexible, transparent, rapid-response organisations, which yet retain something of their old resonance in the affections of their audiences, activists and voters.
To serve this vision, they must concentrate power at the centre until the huge vessels they command come round. Both project certainty that there is no alternative to the course they have set; but both, by cutting themselves free from what they see as the cumbersome embrace of consensual tradition, are men balancing on the edge of a precipice.
The peasants are doing something in the fields: some seem to be protesting. No matter, the script is being written at the centre and the pictures must follow it. n