Birt crisis tops dinner menu

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The Independent Online
BBC GOVERNORS are expected to hold an emergency dinner tonight to discuss the crisis over the tax arrangements of John Birt, the director-general, and widespread criticism of the way the corporation is run by its chairman, Marmaduke Hussey.

It was not clear whether Mr Hussey, who returned from the Far East yesterday to face calls for his resignation, and his deputy, Lord Barnett, would attend. The dinner was being organised by the BBC's Secretary, Michael Stevenson.

Lord Barnett told a public meeting in Manchester last night that he believed 'criticisms in some of the media have been a grotesque slur on a very fine man who will prove to be a superb director-general. There has been a lot of hounding of a man of great integrity in my view.'

Tonight's dinner is designed to take the heat out of a much larger ceremonial one tomorrow to mark the departure of Sir Michael Checkland, the former director-general, from the BBC, with 70 guests including governors, the board of management, Mr Birt and other senior managers.

It will be held in Broadcasting House's Council Chamber, and is expected to be an uncomfortable event. Several key people will not be there, including Sir Paul Fox and Bill Cotton, both former managing directors of BBC Television, and John Tusa, former managing director of World Service, who has a prior engagement.

The board of management's public letter of support for Mr Birt, published yesterday and followed up by further public statements of support by Tony Hall, managing director of news and current affairs, and Ron Neil, managing director of regional services, was viewed with some distaste yesterday by staff at all levels.

One said: 'It is like Stalin asking his central committee to give him their backing.'

Jocelyn Hay, chair of the Voice of the Listener and Viewer, a lobbying association for licence fee payers, said she was dismayed at the governors' failure to protect the public interest.

'What about the viewers in all of this? The vital thing is that the BBC should continue with its reputation unscathed. Any decisions should be based on what is best for the BBC. It is much more important than the career of any person.'

Mr Birt spent yesterday at a friend's house, writing a speech to give to the Royal Television Society on 30 March.

BBC observers considered that the campaign on behalf of Mr Birt had succeeded in protecting him from mounting calls for his resignation, while leaving Mr Hussey exposed.

(Photograph omitted)