Birt gains an edge in the mogul stakes with his BBC revival plan

British media moguls have had a busy year but all their efforts pale into insignificancenext to John Birt’s BBC shake-up. Nick Higham is currently BBC radio’s media correspondent

The media industry has always been noted for its ability to produce larger-than-life characters – showmen, entrepreneurs, risk-takers, mavericks and commercial geniuses.

This year, some of the more colourful have adopted a disappointingly low profile. Kelvin Mackenzie, erstwhile editor of The Sun, now languishes at Live TV. His former boss, Rupert Murdoch, has closed no newspapers and scuppered no Channel 5 bids in 1996.

But some of our home-grown media barons have had a field day. Lord Hollick, already in control of the ITV companies Anglia and Meridian, began the year by snapping up the Daily and Sunday Express and their parent company, United Newspapers.

The renamed United News & Media promptly took the Express by the scruff of the neck, handing both Sunday and daily titles to Richard Addis to edit and reinventing them as a seven-day newspaper, shorn of more than 80 staff.

The move smacks of a last-ditch effort to save the Express in the face of the Mail’s relentless march towards a daily sale of 2 million. It bespeaks boldness on the part of Hollick, a rather reclusive fellow – though his combined group was seriously wrong-footed by the even more reclusive Michael Green of Carlton.

Hollick thought he had a deal to take over Westcountry Television – until Green swooped at the last moment and snatched it from under his nose. Both badly wanted one of the smallest companies in the ITV network for the leverage it gives in the future division of ITV’s advertising revenue.

In the long run, it’s unlikely that the three existing ITV sales houses, Carlton, Granada’s Laser and United’s TSMS, will survive: TSMS’s business starts to look vulnerable now that one of its clients is owned by Carlton.

North of the border, they were developing their own media moguls. STV boss Gus MacDonald became the second ITV chief after Hollick to take advantage of the change in media ownership rules following the Broadcasting Act. STV bought Caledonian, publisher of The Herald in Glasgow, to create a small, but potentially powerful, cross-media company.

And at the other end of the M8, the Barclay brothers (whose extreme concern for their own privacy makes Hollick and Green look like rampant exhibitionists) bought The Scotsman to add to their existing media property, The European. Having installed the energetic Andrew Neil as editor-in-chief, the Barclays may well have other plans for their nascent media empire.

Back in England, Tom Rubython, founder of Sunday Business, showed just how difficult it is to become a media baron. The paper’s launch was one of the most unbusiness-like debuts of the decade; the paper had to be bailed out by a dump-truck manufacturer, and Rubython himself took a back seat.

Nor was it a good year for the editor of the Mirror, Piers Morgan. Circulation slumped, he was roundly condemned for his Euro 96 headline, Achtung! Surrender, and then he muffed the scoop of the year when he sent a leak of Kenneth Clarke’s Budget back to Downing Street.

But at least Morgan is still in his job – unlike the four (or is it five?) acting editors who’ve occupied the chair at the Sunday Mirror this year.

Elsewhere, the cleverest man in British broadcasting, David Elstein, left BSkyB for Channel 5. The channel’s credibility improved in consequence but its launch date was promptly put back until March as it became clear that retuning videos – especially after Channel 5 was given extra frequencies – would indeed take longer than originally anticipated.

But perhaps the most remarkable figure in the media this year has been my ultimate boss at the BBC, John Birt. He proved he’d lost none of his capacity to surprise and outrage (almost 98 per cent of trade union members at the corporation recently declared they had no confidence in their director-general).

Birt announced a major restructuring of the BBC, dividing it into a broadcasting and a production division, abolishing the old distinction between television and radio, and amalgamating many of the programme-making departments of the BBC World Service with their equivalents in the domestic BBC.

In the process, he caused one senior executive (Liz Forgan, head of BBC radio) to resign even before the changes were announced, humiliated another (Bob Phillis, his deputy, who was told of the changes only the day before) and offended the Foreign Office (ditto).

But Birt also announced a remarkable programme of expansion, taking the BBC into a joint venture with Flextech to launch subscription TV channels and outlining plans for licence fee-funded services, including a 24-hour news channel, using digital transmission.

To pay for it he wants not only to cut jobs and costs (largely through the introduction of new technology), but also an increase in the real level of the TV licence fee – something the BBC hasn’t had since the mid Eighties.

While public service broadcasters elsewhere are quietly expiring, or sinking into terminal decline, Birt seems intent on ensuring not just the BBC’s survival but its continuing rude good health, even if he has to reinvent the organisation every few years to achieve it.

And, as he points out, with ITV’s audience share taking a hammering at the expense of cable and satellite, but the BBC’s holding up remarkably well, so far he seems to be succeeding.


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