John Birt

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John Birt

John Birt (born 10 December 1944) is a former producer with the ITV company LWT and was Director-General of the BBC from 1992 to 2000. He served as a policy advisor to Tony Blair from 2001 to 2005. [1]

Nuclear spin.png This article is part of the Nuclear Spin project of Spinwatch.

Lord Birt joined the House of Lords in February 2000.[2]

LWT, the 'Mission to explain' and the BBC

From 1968 to 1974 Birt worked as on several ITV current affairs programmes. He was a Producer on Nice Time 1968–69; Joint Editor of World in Action, 1969–70; Producer of The Frost Programme, 1971–72; and Executive Producer of Weekend World, 1972–74. In 1974 he was appointed Head of Current Affairs at LWT. He became Controller of Features and Current Affairs in 1977 and was Director of Programmes from 1982 to 1987. [3]

From 1972 to 1977, the main presenter on Birt's high brow current affairs programme Weekend World was the neoliberal journalist Peter Jay. During this period, Birt and Jay developed a critique of television news and current affairs which appeared in a series of editorials printed in The Times in 1975/6. They argued that television had a ‘bias against understanding’ and that television producers should recruit journalists with special expertise and develop a more analytical style. What later became known as the ‘mission to explain’ came to be associated with high brow analytical journalism – as apposed to the adversarial style (at least theoretically) favoured by current affairs journalists.

In 1977 after the Annan Committee criticised BBC News and Current Affairs, the BBC Chairman Michael Swann invited Jay and Birt to the BBC to give him their views on broadcasting. According to a member of the BBC management team quoted in The Battle for the BBC: 'The governors came quite close to the proposition that maybe we should bring these lads in and have them do a number on news and current affairs'. In the event the Director-General Charles Curran vetoed this suggestion but a paper was distributed to all the Governors detailing Jay and Birt's theory. [4]

Ten years later the ‘mission to explain’ was used as the rationale for a series of unpopular changes at the BBC.

John Birt’s philosophy of television journalism, with its emphasis on analytical content and careful editorial planning, fitted well with the objectives of the new BBC leadership in the mid to late 1980s. In January 1987 the BBC Director-General Alasdair Milne was forced to resign by the Board of Governors – a move widely perceived to be as a result of BBC current affairs programmes that had offended the Government. The most notable of these programmes was an episode of Panorama called Maggie's Militant Tendency, which led to an organised counterattack by Ralph Harris, Sir James Goldsmith and other right-wing activists.[5]

The removal of Milne had been orchestrated by the (Thatcher appointed) Chairman Duke Hussey, who with his new Director-General the accountant Michael Checkland now asked John Birt to oversee BBC journalism.

Birt oversaw the merging of news and current affairs into a new News and Current Affairs Directorate and shut down the Lime Grove buildings where the current affairs programmes like Panorama had been based. As the anthropologist Georgina Born notes, Lime Grove had been ‘physically distant from the news base in White City, a distance that symbolised its independence from the body of the BBC and its own creative tradition of investigation and analysis.’ [6] BBC current affairs programmes were brought under tighter editorial control, creating in a more risk averse journalistic culture. Georgina Born writes:

The reorganisation was accompanied by intensifying managerial caution, as borne out by incidents in which programmes were cancelled or delayed under the threat of government displeasure. In January 1991, at the start of the Gulf War, and against the convictions of the editors, a sensational Panorama was blocked which revealed that Britain had supplied Iraq with a massively powerful piece of armoury, the ‘supergun’, on the grounds that public opinion would not tolerate the story at a time when British servicemen were going to war. And on the eve of the 1992 general election campaign, a Panorama entitled ‘Sliding into a Slump’ was pulled, in which Britain’s economic problems were laid at the door of the former Conservative chancellor, Nigel Lawson. [7]

In 1992 Birt was appointed Director-General of the BBC. He left with a payout of £784,000 and an annual pension of £130,000.


At London Weekend Television Birt became good friends with Peter Mandelson (they've been on Tuscan walking holidays together and Mandelson was Birt's guest at the 1997 FA Cup Final). After his period at the BBC he was awarded the life peerage in 1999, and took his seat in the House of Lords in March 2000. [8] [9]

He was "Crime Czar", then an adviser on transport in the Cabinet Office Forward Strategy Unit. In October 2001, Birt was appointed as Tony Blair's personal advisor, for what was termed 'blue skies thinking'. The position was unpaid. His role was controversial: as a special advisor rather than a civil servant, he was not obliged to appear in front of Commons Select Committees - and refused to do so when requested.[10][11]

He prepared reports on crime, drugs, education, health and transport - all of which have been released under the Freedom of Information Act. NuclearSpin applied for a copy of his report on nuclear power - widely reported to recommend building new nuclear power stations - under the Act, but the government said it could 'neither confirm nor deny whether [it] holds [such] information'. NuclearSpin has appealed against the decision.[12][13][14]

While at Downing Street, Birt worked part-time for management consultants McKinsey & Company, which has won a considerable number of contracts with the Government. Since February 2004, Birt has been a member of the Board of Directors of PayPal.[15] [16][17]

On December 15, 2005 Birt announced that he was leaving Downing Street to take up a post with the private equity firm Terra Firma.[18]

Links to nuclear industry

Birt is widely reported to be pro-nuclear and his unpublished report on energy was said to recommend the expansion of nuclear power. [19]

The Guardian reported in November 2005: "Both John Birt, the PM's personal adviser and former head of the BBC, and industry adviser Geoffrey Norris, have been pushing the technology [nuclear] strongly from the Strategy Unit at No 10".[20]

According to press reports in mid-2005, Tony Blair also lobbied for Birt to become chairman of the nuclear power company Urenco - which has almost a fifth of the global uranium enrichment market and is jointly owned by the British, Dutch and German governments. The job went to Christopher Clark, former chief executive of chemicals firm Johnson Matthey, in September 2005. [21]

Reports also suggest that Birt then unsuccessfully lobbied to be appointed head of the Government's review of nuclear energy before quitting as Blair's special adviser.[22]



  1. BIRT’, Who's Who 2010, A & C Black, 2010; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2009 ; online edn, Nov 2009 [Accessed 19 March 2010]
  2. Lord Birth Parliament.UK, accessed 10 December 2014
  3. BIRT’, Who's Who 2010, A & C Black, 2010; online edn, Oxford University Press, Dec 2009 ; online edn, Nov 2009 [Accessed 24 March 2010]
  4. Steven Barnett & Andrew Curry, The Battle for the BBC: A British Broadcasting Conspiracy? (London: Aurum Press, 1994) p.79
  5. Patricia Wynn Davies, 'The Cash-for-Questions Affair: The miners' grandson who found a niche in the right', Independent, 21 October 1994; p.3
  6. Georgina Born, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (London: Secker & Warburg, 2004) p.57.
  7. Georgina Born, Uncertain Vision: Birt, Dyke and the Reinvention of the BBC (London: Secker & Warburg, 2004) p.58.
  8. DodOnline Political Biographies: Lord Birt, subscription only but can be accessed for free through UK Parliament's website undated, accessed February 2006.
  9. BBC news website 'Profile: Peter Mandelson', August 13, 2004.
  10. Birt's letter of appointment, released under the Freedom of Information Act (pdf), undated.
  11. Select Committee on Public Administration First Special Report, November 17, 2005.
  12. Documents released by the Cabinet Office under the Freedom of Information Act, undated, accessed February 2006.
  13. Marie Woolf and Andrew Grice, "Nuclear power? Yes please, says Blair", The Independent, April 23, 2005, unavailable on Independent website, but can be viewed at Climate Ark website;
  14. Nikhil Rathi Letter to Rich Cookson February 10, 2006.
  15. PayPayl website: Board of Directors, undated, accessed February 2006.
  16. DodOnline Political Biographies: Lord Birt, subscription only but can be accessed for free through UK Parliament's website undated, accessed February 2006.
  17. Tania Branigan, "Ministers 'used Live 8 to bury' critical report", The Guardian, July 4, 2005.
  18. Downing Street announcement 'New Job for Lord Birt', December 15, 2005.
  19. Eddie Barnes and Murdo Macleod 'Country Needs Nuclear Power', Scotland on Sunday, May 15, 2005.
  20. No named author, "Energy Review: Who's for, Who's Against and Why', unavailable online, The Guardian, November 30 2005.
  21. Jay Merrick, "Birt the Crony is in line for £300,000 post", unavailable online, Mail on Sunday, September 26, 2006; G. Wilson and M. Seamark, "Birt tipped for Urenco post", unavailable online, The Independent, September 26, 2005; No named author, "Birt Quits No10 and Heads for the City", unavailable online, Daily Mail, December 16, 2005.
  22. Andrew Grice, "Birt's Move to Head Nuclear Inquiry is Blocked by Cabinet", unavailable online, The Independent, November 28, 2005.