Blairista Birt Accuses BBC of 'Blind Defence and Sophistry'

06 February 2004

The sulphurous whiff of old emnity was redolent in an unprecedented attack on the governors of the BBC -- and obliquely on its recently ousted director general Greg Dyke -- by the latter's predecessor, Lord John Birt, now a 'special advisor' to prime minister Tony Blair.

Birt, who owes his ennoblement to Blair's personal patronage, was speaking Wednesday in a House of Lords debate on the Hutton inquiry into the infamous Iraq WMD dossier. In a tirade against his erstwhile BBC colleagues, Birt accused its governors of failing in their duties and went on to question the corporation's whole regulatory structure.

Claiming the BBC had suffered the worst setback in its history his lordship opined: "At the root of this crisis is a slipshod piece of journalism and, let us be clear, it was not 'mostly right' [as reporter Andrew Gilligan insists it is]. The central thrust of the story was unfounded."

In full oratorical spate Birt continued: "But let us also be clear. The subject of the reporter's inquiry, the government's dossier, was entirely legitimate. It was the treatment of the story that was deeply unsatisfactory … when the coverage was challenged, it should have been investigated rigorously by BBC executives but, transfixed by outside attack, they did not."

"Rather, we had blind defence and sophistry. We heard the story being supported on the grounds that it was sufficient to report a source, provided that the source was reported accurately, whether or not the story was true. They failed for too long to act as the BBC regulators and in the process they have brought into question the BBC's 1920s system of governance."

The Gilligan story, continued Birt, "should not have happened and it should not have been defended". There were, he charged, failings at every level. "From top to bottom, a series of grievous errors were made and it was those errors that damaged the BBC." The BBC could still recover "but some are in denial, understandably shocked, bewildered, confused".

The current brouhaha may not be "the worst setback" in the BBC's long and honourable history, as the peer claims. Many within (and without) the corporation believe that day dawned when Birt was appointed director general in 1992.

An unreconstructed apparatchik, his distant and bureaucratic regime was loathed by programme-makers, in the wake of which which Dyke's programme-oriented approach came as a welcome breath of fresh air.

During Dyke's (almost) four year reign at the BBC he was never less than charitable toward his predecessor, although it is common knowledge there is little love lost between the two.

Dyke, Birt and Blair's political eminence gris, Peter Mandelson, comprise a volatile triangular love-hate relationship that dates back to the early 1990s when the trio ruled the roost at London Weekend Television -- and were transformed overnight into millionaires following a hostile takeover.

Data sourced from:; additional content by WARC staff