I have just returned from sunny Los Angeles, visiting Simon Cowell, the subject of my most recent biography. He told me about a visit by Cheryl Cole to his amazing house in Beverly Hills to patch up their arguments. ‘My book is number 1,’ boasted Cheryl. ‘Mine was number 1 for six weeks,’ countered Cowell, enjoying a rare moment of self-congratulation amid a sharp drop of The X Factor USA’s ratings on Fox TV. Everyone, it seems, is having a crisis.
I am grateful to John Birt for offering me my first job in TV (at Granada). But I blame his legacy for the current crisis, the latest in a long line since I joined BBC current affairs in 1970. Under Birt’s ‘blue skies thinking’ between 1987 and 2000, the BBC wasted billions of pounds on consultants, structural changes, jargon-infested bureaucracy, an Amazonian gravy train of expenses and salaries, and a stupendous property spree. Under Birt, the BBC moved from old Broadcasting House in central London to west London and under Mark Thompson, a neo-Birtist, it moved back to ‘New’ Broadcasting House, a branding folly reflecting the BBC’s allegiance to the Blairite Labour party. And then £800 million was wasted moving to a Salford wasteland. Spending billions on property rather than programmes reflected Birt’s and Thompson’s obsessions at the expense of outstanding producers and journalists throughout the BBC, including Newsnight and the Today.
Mark Thompson, a shrewd operator, is also responsible for the current crisis. He failed to nurture proper successors and encouraged Newsnight’s pursuit of the Murdochs. Over dinner in the Olympic village, he justified to me his vengeance against James Murdoch: ‘We have to follow the story.’ Now we’re following the twists of his inconsistent explanations about Newsnight’s Savile programme, although he has slipped away to New York.