Unaccountable, unelected... how perfectly New Labour

Last updated at 11:31 30 August 2005

One annual event which passes most of us by is the James MacTaggart Memorial Lecture, delivered during the Edinburgh Festival. A great media figure makes a speech to assembled media folk, some of whom can be relied on to describe it as visionary. Often it is a statement of the obvious.

This year's MacTaggart Lecture was delivered by John Birt, former director-general of the BBC, and now a so-called 'blue skies thinker' for Tony Blair. What Lord Birt had to say was about as interesting as his last MacTaggart Lecture nine years ago. He said some pretty unexceptionable things about how we should not "tabloidise our intellectual life". Rather cryptically, he added: "We need more truth. We need more beauty."

However, it is not so much Lord Birt's speech that interests me as his subsequent behaviour at a dinner laid on by The Guardian, which sponsors the MacTaggart Lecture. Asked a question by the newspaper's media editor, Lord Birt demanded: "Who the f*** are you? And why are you wearing a tie?" After the journalist had introduced himself, Lord Birt said: "So you write b******* and now you're going to talk b******* too".

Well, I am all for being rude to journalists, but this seems to be taking things rather too far, even if, as one suspects, the wine had flowed. This is not the language one would expect from a man who has run the BBC and remains a public figure, albeit an unelected one. What kind of example is this to impressionable young Guardian employees? It is odd that Lord Birt should regard wearing a tie - once a token of a certain respectability - as an unpardonable aberration. It may be odder still that a Guardian journalist should have had one.

If one wished to get depressed by the standards of our new ruling class, this would serve as an ideal text. Some of us may use foul words in the privacy of our own homes, but not, I would hope, at a public event. Combined with Lord Birt's coarseness is an equally displeasing arrogance. He has delivered an ex-cathedra speech (though a characteristically boring one) and he does not wish to have his great thoughts questioned by a mere media editor. He was saying: Who are you to question me?

One should turn this question around: who is John Birt? We can see that he is vulgar and selfimportant. (By the way, he also turned up at that Guardian dinner with his new partner, having recently dumped his wife of 40 years). But it is by no means clear why the rest of humanity should regard him as the exalted figure he evidently believes himself to be.

Since leaving the BBC in 2000, Lord Birt has acted as an adviser to Mr Blair. First he tried his hand at crime, on which subject he was no great expert, before being 'let go' after not offering any useful advice. Then he was appointed 'blue skies thinker' with particular reference to transport. Do not recognise any limits, he was told. Go back to the drawing board. His most memorable proposal - to spend billions on new toll roads - was swiftly shelved. And, er, that's about it.

What of his time at the BBC? He was appointed deputy director-general in 1987 by a Thatcher administration looking for greater financial accountability, and in 1992 became director-general. The man aptly lampooned as a "croaked voice Dalek" had pronounced autocratic, not to say Stalinist, tendencies, and imposed successive reforms on the Corporation, some of which made sense, but many of which were crazy. Under 'producer choice', designed to create an internal market, BBC employees found themselves paying £50 to borrow a book which could be bought for £10 at a local bookshop.

Though not obviously brilliant - he had scraped a third in engineering at Oxford - Lord Birt knew that it was possible to dominate and intimidate much cleverer and more creative BBC staff with the resources of management-speak available to him. During his time in charge he spent £150 million on consultants. Like other bureaucratically-minded modern managers, he realised that these people will do or say more or less what is required by management if they are generously paid. The recommendations of consultants can be invoked to justify any change.

Lord Birt understands the dynamics of power - and he is pretty keen on money, too. After his appointment as director-general, it emerged that he had greatly reduced his tax liability by classifying himself as a freelance. In one year, he set £8,791 for wardrobe expenses, including Armani suits, against tax. When he left the BBC, on an annual salary that had soared to £456,000 during his tenure, he trousered a payoff of £328,400 for 'early retirement', although his contract had practically expired.

But what, you may ask, does he believe? That is not easy to say. When he was appointed to the BBC, he was described as a Thatcherite, but times change, and after he left the Corporation, he took the Labour whip in the House of Lords, and went to work for Tony Blair. He knows where his loyalties lie. During the Government's row with the BBC over the Andrew Gilligan affair, he openly sided against the Corporation and with his new friend, Alastair Campbell. Duke Hussey, the BBC chairman who originally took on Lord Birt, later described him as an "a***-licker", and said that he "got on well with people by agreeing with what they said".

Compare this latter-day Vicar of Bray with Lord Reith, the BBC's first director-general. Lord Reith was not much interested in making money. Lord Reith stood up to governments. Lord Reith had firm principles. Lord Reith would not have rounded on a journalist at a public gathering, and spat out four-letter expletives. The contrast is so painful that one has to pinch oneself to remember that Lord Reith did not live 150 years ago, but within living memory. Can the political culture of any other great country have been debased so quickly?

The difference, in a word, is rectitude. Lord Reith, and most public men of that generation, were people of rectitude. The word does not sit happily with Lord Birt. Nor does it with many of our modern ruling class. Their high priest is Alastair Campbell, an unelected official who has suborned the civil service in the interests of New Labour and will, in due course, make a financial killing by publishing his diaries.

Lord Birt is a perfect specimen of the new breed of New Labour apparatchiks who never take any civil service examination or submit themselves to the indignity of public election and yet end up pontificating on the public payroll while being handsomely rewarded. They do not have many ideas or much originality, and believe in little except themselves. Above all, they are unaccountable, which is why, like Lord Birt, they cannot bear being put on the spot by a mere journalist.

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