THE most obvious difference between Greg Dyke and Sir John Birt is that Mr Dyke is an exceptionally likeable man, and Sir John is not. In a place as unhappy as the BBC, that matters. But there are bigger differences that may matter more to the BBC'S future.
One concerns the licence fee. Sir John has squashed any internal discussion of whether it is sustainable. Mr Dyke has said publicly that he doubts it can be sustained for 20 years. Looking at what has happened in America, he says, mass broadcasting may turn out to be a blip in history. Most people will soon have access to a subscription system, so will be able to choose whether they want to pay for the BBC or not. But he is not entirely comfortable with this idea. If the BBC switches to subscription, he fears, a class of "information poor" may develop.
The cultural instincts of the two men are also sharply different. Sir John is a Reithian figure, who arrived at the BBC with a "mission to explain". Mr Dyke is no anti-intellectual--notwithstanding Roland Rat, the gimmick he used to popularise the failing TV-AM, which will forever be his albatross--but he is an anti-elitist. His favourite illustration of the social origins of British broadcasting is a quotation from Lady Plowden, once head of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, which used to regulate commercial television. She described "Crossroads", a blameless soap opera, as "distressingly popular", and ordered that transmission be cut from four to three times a week.
Mr Dyke is both a decentraliser and a democrat at heart. When Tony Blair put him in charge of a committee to design a charter for the National Health Service, he failed to produce one, saying that when conditions varied so widely across the country, it did not make sense to impose the same document everywhere. Different hospitals and health trusts should develop their own, he felt. In the BBC, which is sometimes said to combine a Stalinist lust for central control with a Trotskyite taste for permanent revolution, such an approach should be refreshing.