Media: A Moment with Marquis

Lord Birt is a clever and successful man. He has been clever and successful in several ways, not least in turning himself into one of the prime minister's most trusted advisers. But you have to wonder whether giving him a role - any role - in determining the future of the BBC was right.

In his time as director-general, John Birt brought about some of the most radical changes the corporation had ever seen. In many respects his move to more of a "market economy" at the BBC was welcome and overdue.

But in implementing his vision, he failed to carry the hearts and minds of BBC employees and, in the end, his reign was seen as harsh, bureaucratic and anti-creative, in stark contrast to that of his "man of the people" successor, Greg Dyke.

With this record, does Lord Birt not carry too much BBC baggage to be able to provide a dispassionate assessment of the future of broadcasting and the BBC's place within it? You could argue that his extensive experience of broadcasting makes him ideally suited to the "blue sky thinking" role in which he has been cast, but against that you must weigh a very personal but all too public antipathy to the current BBC chairman, Michael Grade.

It is hard, looking at the two of them now, to imagine them as friends back at London Weekend Television 30 years ago, but they held each other in high regard. All that has gone and the open animosity is now equally mutual.

Grade is a commercially minded man with strong market instincts. But he is also a proud custodian of the top role at the BBC and will not apply the sort of ruthless ideology to its running and culture that Birt did.

While Grade accepts that the governors were found wanting during the Hutton debacle and that the BBC needs a measure of carefully managed change, his inclination is not for dramatic upheaval at this time. It appears that the culture and media secretary, Tessa Jowell, agrees and that Lord Birt's support for a more radical agenda for the funding of public-service broadcasting will not see the light of day - at least this time round.

Even those usually in favour of a major shake-up in the licence fee system, however, accept that there is something special and different about the BBC. For all its faults - and there are many - it remains a beacon of quality, not just on its home patch but on the global stage. Who - apart, perhaps, from Lord Birt - is really prepared to risk undermining its very foundations?

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