Former BBC director-general John Birt believes there is no organisation “better managed and better run” than the BBC.
Speaking to current director-general Tony Hall at an event celebrating the 60th birthday of BBC television news on Monday night, Lord Birt (pictured, Reuters) described himself as an “ultra BBC loyalist”.
Despite recounting a number of “intensely grim” battles he fought for BBC News during his time at Broadcasting House, he said that working with private sector organisations – primarily in chairman and director positions – had made him realise how well run the BBC is.
Birt, who first went to the BBC as deputy director-general in 1987 before serving as director-general between 1992 and 2000, described it as a “very large bureaucracy”.
But he added: “Any organisation in the world [commercial included] has… there are some cultural tendencies about human beings in big organisations so the bigger the organisation, the more bureaucratic you will find it, and the less rational.
“And sometimes people lose their mind at very large organisations and become unclear about their purposes. And it’s harder in a public sector organisation to become clear about purposes.
“But I have had a huge amount of exposure now to the public sector and tell me an organisation which is better managed and better run than the BBC. There isn’t one.” A mixture of applause and laughter followed this statement in a crowd largely made up of BBC employees.
Birt described himself, when he arrived from ITV, as “a Protestant made Pope – absolutely nobody thought I was necessary”.
“It was the most difficult challenge that I ever faced in my whole life,” he said. “What followed was an intensely grim and miserable period for me personally until it all started to come good.”
When he arrived, Birt said, “there was lots of mismanagement” and TV news was “fantastically underinvested”.
He added: “The bitter battle to move the news from 25 minutes [running time] to 30 minutes was just awful.”
Birt told the event at New Broadcasting House that when he joined the BBC – after the forced resignation of director-general Alasdair Milne – it had just experienced the “biggest crisis in its history… others were to follow”.