Birt crony in line for the chair, says message from Beyond 

12 March 2004

My nautical independent television pioneering, and, sadly, defunct correspondent Captain T.B. has chosen to indicate quite categorically to me, in the latest seance held in our front room yesterday evening with, as always, the invaluable intercedence of Madame Arcati, that he is firmly alongside with those of us who are more than a little concerned about the course the BBC might be obliged to steer with a more Government-friendly hand on the rudder. Not known as a friend of the Labour Party during his lifetime, we might not find Captain B.’s views on this matter particularly surprising.

However he suggests, in his rather pompous, Ouija-board-limited way – a far cry from the old days when he was at the helm of a rather more, ah, corporate (or at least corporeal) Board – that we might like to reflect on the possible impact of Lord Birt’s crony, Lord Burns, becoming Chairman of the Corporation.

Birt, not particularly helpful when he was DG, Captain B. notes, has proved, if anything, to be nastier still as a member of the Lords, with several recent instances of BBC-bashing on his record. At the weekend he was again putting down the Corporation at a do in Venice – evidently loudly enough to be audible in the ethereal realms – where he suggested that the BBC had “gone off the public service rails”.

Captain B., not someone generally known to be easily impressed by railway analogies, comments that this is more the kind of thing we expect to hear from the head of a television production company, such as Bazil “Mr Choice” Getty for example, from whom we generally expect concern that the Corporation is just simply too good at everything and ought to, ah, take a long walk off a short plank. In this case, however, the Captain suggests, some people might simply think it more to do with everyone liking Birt’s successor at the BBC more than they liked him – or disliked him, if you prefer.

Apparently, Matt Wells’s recent piece in Media Guardian was sufficiently illuminating to reach the higher planes, and our Captain (not normally noted for studying the ah, Liberal press) was interested to note as a result that Burns, currently head of the Abbey Bank and a government adviser on the BBC charter, has been on walking tours with Birt, and that both are good mates of both Mr Blair and Lord Butler, the man in charge of the latest Iraq probe.

Burns, Birt and Butler apparently recently dined together at the High Table of University College, Oxford, where Lord Butler is Master, the Captain was kind to point out, and Lord Burns is also on good terms with Tessa Jowell, who appointed him to advise on Charter review a year or so ago.

This all bodes ill, in the not inconsiderable view of my nautical friend, who while formerly the head of a long-lost early ITV contractor, freely admits to being more than a little influenced by BBC practice in the mid-1950s. One might argue, the pointer on our Ouija board spelled out, that anyone who’s a friend of Birt’s is probably not a friend of the BBC, at least not the BBC to which we have become accustomed. But I have seldom heard of a better couple of reasons to abolish the House of Lords – something with which my friend would quite probably not concur.

On a happier note, Captain B. then proceeded to signify for us the news that David Dimbleby is on the shortlist for the Chair, suggesting that there is hope yet for the great vessel that sails the rough seas of Portland Place and beyond. Dimbleby, the Captain points out (quite literally in this case), is the son of one of the most famous BBC Television Service broadcasters of all time, Richard Dimbleby, and would no doubt be well received by the staff, as well as being likely to make sure that everything is shipshape and Bristol fashion.

Dimbleby has been passed over on previous occasions for both the post of DG (where Cap’n B. is sure he would also do an excellent job) and Chairman, but word from beyond Davy Jones’s Locker is that he’s at least in with a chance on this occasion. Let’s hope so – or at least that someone friendly is. Even former Tory chair Chris Patten (who is not on the list) has gone on record as disagreeing with the departure of Dyke and Davies and calling for someone who is not always apologising – a comment that I am sure would go down well with our venerable Captain.

One cannot imagine, Captain B. telegraphed (before it all became too much for our Madame Arcati and we had to call an end to the session for this week) Dimbleby bowing and scraping too much. A superbly experienced broadcaster, not afraid to ask bold questions, and not in the pocket of any political persuasion as far as we can tell. Could go far, eh what, the Captain proposed, before any remaining ectoplasm finally dissipated and the pointer on Madame Arcati’s old mahogany Ouija board became still for the time being.

With any luck by next week we will have some kind of speaking tube arranged between our living room and the Other World, so that Madame Arcati can communicate a little more, well, freely if not coherently, with our broadcasting correspondent from Beyond. Otherwise it really is a bit much for her, especially as she has to ride home on her bicycle afterwards.

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