Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘John Birt’

John Tusa Making a Noise ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2018

John Tusa bookWithout a doubt, my favourite period during the 20 years I was based at BBC World Service at Bush House was when John Tusa was its Head. Having worked there in more junior roles at earlier stages in his career, he understood what made the place tick. The basement canteen was an extraordinary meeting place of resident experts and guests from all over the world, and he made a point of spending time there, chatting to everyone. As his autobiography, Making a Noise (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25), makes clear, he would have loved to go on to be the BBC’s Director General, but there were powerful forces who were determined not to let that happen. Instead, the Corporation was landed with John Birt (or “the Dalek”, as we called him without affection at Bush), who wanted to bring about a revolution of management systems and efficiency measures which leeched much of the soul out of the institution. Fortunately for John Tusa, he had other fish to fry, not least as a TV presenter, not just on international affairs but also covering music and the other Arts — a passion shared with his wife Annie, with whom he has enjoyed a close partnership ever since they met as students at Cambridge. They went back to Cambridge, briefly, when he was appointed Principal of Wolfson College — an unmitigated disaster, as he recounts it, that lasted barely a year. That didn’t turn him completely off academe, however, as later, after a long, productive period running the Barbican Centre in the City, he would become Chairman of the University of Arts London, juggled along with being Chairman of the Clore Leadership Programme. Though now officially retired he is still full of beans, as I discovered when I went to see him being interviewed about the book by Robin Lustig at New Broadcasting House recently. All in all, he has had what is often tritely called a “glittering career” and not one many would have predicted when his father took him and the rest of his immediate family out of Czechoslovakia in the summer of 1939, to run a Bata shoe factory in Essex. Oddly, John Tusa never lived abroad himself again, though his broadcasting and Arts careers led to many short foreign assignments. He was thus a witness to important moments of history, including events in Poland in 1989, when Communism started to crumble in central and eastern Europe. There is therefore much that is fascinating about this book, though perhaps inevitably the later sections about Arts and academic administration are maybe less appealing to the general reader than earlier accounts of his work with the BBC. I would have liked more detailed pen portraits of some of the significant figures he encountered; instead there is a pot-pourri of amusing short memories in an “Envoi” at the end. Throughout, however, the author comes across as a man of great decency and discernment and a champion of several of the very best things about British and European civilization.

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Farewell to Bush House

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 15th July, 2012

This week, the BBC World Service completed its move out of Bush House in the Aldwych to the state-of-the-art new news and current affairs HQ attached to Broadcasting House in Portland Place. As I drove past Bush House yesterday afternoon, a lump stuck in my throat. This was not just nostalgia for an iconic building, whose name and role as the voice of Britain were known throughout the world but also because of fears that I — and many others who worked there — have for the future of the World Service. During the 20-odd years I was based there, the whittling away of European language services began and staff cuts became ever more severe. There was a certain logic to the argument that previously Communist states of central and eastern Europe no longer needed Auntie to tell them what was going on in the world (including inside their own country) once they had their own free media, but the arguments for cutting some of the more exotic services were far less evident. Moreover, from the time John Birt took over as Director General of the BBC it became clear that the Corporation’s top brass did not value the World Service as much as its listeners or those who worked there did. That trend has alas continued, whatever Mark Thompson said in his valedicory broadcast. Moreover, as the World Service is now no longer funded by the Foreign Office, but instead by the general BBC licence fee, its “value” to those paying for it is bound to be further questioned. Worst of all, instead of having World Service radio, with all its different language services and regional departments, all under one roof in a building that was almost like an Oxbridge college in atmosphere and range of expertise, instead now World Service employees will hot-desk with other BBC staff, I understand, and technical resources will be pooled. This doubtlkess makes a lot of sense to accountants, but very little to those of us who treasured what had become during and after the Second World War, one of Britain’s greatest assets.

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Joan Bakewell’s James Cameron Lecture

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 8th October, 2009

Joan BakewellDame Joan Bakewell — once memorably described by Frank Muir as ‘the thinking man’s crumpet’ and now a champion for fellow septuagenarians — last night gave the James Cameron Memorial Lecture to a large audience at London’s City University.  Her title was ‘The Keeper of the Flame: morality and the media’, which gave her plenty of opportunity to decry the fall in standards in public broadcasting, as well as reminding us that the BBC’s Lord Reith was himself a rather dogmatic, crusty old fart (not her phrase). Nonetheless, the core mission he established for the Corporation — to educate, inform and entertain — remains a sound one of which current BBC management would well benefit from reminding themselves. A central thesis of Joan Bakewell’s elegant and beautifully-delivered lecture was that the BBC’s moral purpose has been compromised by the modern emphasis on ratings and cost-cutting. Programme budgets continue to be slashed, though not top executives’ salary packages. While not new, Joan’s contention that the rot set in with Duke Hussey’s dismissal of Alistair Milne and his replacement by John Birt and Birtism in the mid-1980s, that is a point constantly worth making. It may be unrealistic to look back to some supposed Golden Age of Broadcasting (as Joan correctly said, some of the programmes of the 1950s and 1960s were technically pretty awful), but it is true that there has been dumbing down, Arts and Culuture are no longer given the weight that they had before and the level of bad language and bad behaviour on air is enough to make Lord Reith spin in his grave.

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