The press coverage of John Birt's position as the first Director-General of the BBC to be paid as a freelance has already been as long as a Weekend World introduction. But the following points should be made, particularly given the current move in newspaper editorials towards sympathy for Mr Birt and apparent acceptance that the resignation of the BBC chairman, Marmaduke 'Duke' Hussey would be sufficient sacrificial contrition.
The defenders of Mr Birt allege that his critics are using his embarrassment as an opportunity to dethrone him, not from proper moral outrage but from opposition to his reform package for the BBC. Perhaps this is true of some of the must-go voices. But it can be argued that the tax scandal should not be viewed in isolation. It can be seen as a useful metaphor for the way in which the BBC has recently been run: cosy secret deals between John and Duke, one to fix up Mr Birt's payroll status, another to ensure the departure of Michael Checkland as DG and the succession, without advertisement or interview, of Mr Birt.
It must also be regarded as unfortunate for Mr Birt that one of his most vociferous defenders has been David Mellor, who regards his own experience as especially relevant to Birtgate. This is because Mr Mellor persists in presenting his own story as that of a man of great talent brought down by obsessive press attention to a matter which, though regrettable, in no way affected his public responsibilities.
Although no sexual scandal has emerged about Mr Birt - indeed, this has so far been one of the few British scandals in which a Mysterious Other Woman (the secretary of John Birt Productions) turned out to be the protagonist's wife - Mr Mellor asks us to see parallels. In fact, an alternative version of Mellor's fall would be that what finally discredited him was not the sex but grave misjudgment over the acceptance of financial perks (in the Mellor case, free flights and holidays for his family). As it happens, this is precisely the charge against the Director-General. So, if there is a Birt-Mellor parallel, it may not be the one that the former Heritage Secretary wishes us to draw.
My view is that there remain strong moral and practical cases for Mr Birt to resign. The logistical difficulty of his continuation would be whether it is tenable for the head of the world's most prestigious news-gathering operation to be himself the biggest story of a week or fortnight. Inevitably, it has not been possible for the BBC to report the affair authoritatively. Even when the corporation has tried - and yesterday's Call Nick Ross on Radio 4 commendably accepted the Director- General's future as its proper topic - the listener has had to read between the lines, Pravda-style, looking for evasions and special pleadings.
And, even though the immediate story would eventually retreat, there is still the risk that Birt would be carrying out his job as a joke-butt, a pity-object: compare Norman Lamont.
But the simple moral case against Mr Birt is the strongest. It seems to me that if you asked an ordinary fair- thinking person - to adopt the standard used in defamation trials - the question 'Should the overall head of a publicly-funded body be allowed to be paid as a freelance in order to avoid tax?', they would answer a resounding no. If it emerged tomorrow that one of the current Cabinet had his Secretary of State's salary paid to Right Foot Foward Ltd, they would be required to resign, and I have yet to be convinced that Mr Birt's case - that of a public servant, paid for from public funds - is substantively different. If he went, his supporters would lament that a talented man had been brought down by a single flaw.
But, among Mr Birt's fans in the Conservative Party are many of those who keep telling us that children ought to be taught Shakespeare. Well, one of the things they will learn there is that talented, even great, men are often brought down by single flaws.
With Mr Hussey, I would go further and say that there is no plausible case for his survival. If his BBC career were a programme, it would be a sitcom. In 1987, he steered the selection as Director-General - from a field of six candidates which included such television big-hitters as Jeremy Isaacs, Michael Grade and David Dimbleby - towards an innocuous accountant called Michael Checkland.
Four years later, tiring of his prodigy, he managed to choose John Birt from a field of one. Hussey's collaborations with his old employer, Rupert Murdoch, on joint BSkyB-BBC packages for football and news coverage have given viewers (particularly soccer fans) an incentive to buy satellite dishes: an eccentric agenda for the Chairman of the BBC.
So these are my conclusions about the Birt affair: 1) Whatever now happens, there must be a public undertaking from the board of governors that, in the future, the job of Director-General will he publicly advertised and a range of candidates interviewed: thus, even if a dull accountant should again be selected over charismatic television executives, the reasoning will at least be open to scrutiny. 2) If Mr Birt survives, it will have to be made clear that he is, as David Mellor once said about the press, 'drinking in the last chance saloon'. The licence-payer - and the BBC - would want, I think, contrition and humility, a kinder, gentler John Birt.
As for replacement candidates - if one or both swords should be fallen on to - my personal dream ticket would be, as Chairperson, Baroness James of Holland Park, whose highly developed sense of right and wrong would be, in these times, an interesting experiment when applied to public office. She would doubtless plead an obligation to write the next P D James novel, but must be urged to take the chair for a few years, with the possibility of useful research perhaps dangled as a carrot. She would surely get a good murder plot out of holding a senior position at the BBC.
The perfect Director-General would be Michael Grade, a considerable political operator, well-equipped to direct the BBC through the renegotiation of its charter. (As I have said, he or Isaacs would have been the shrewd choice in 1987.) My nightmare ticket - as Chairman - would be a specially ennobled Lord Kenneth Baker, a trick which the Government may be capable of pulling in retaliation for the forcing out of Hussey, who has been very much their man. Even so, terror of the Baker option should not be allowed to cloud the fact that the prize of running a publicly-funded institution comes at a price of absolute personal rigour. It is time that, at the very least, Duke's House Party should end its run. John Says . . . Opportunity Knocks should not take its place in the schedules for granted either.Reuse content