... but it's not his leaving party yet

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FIGURES FROM politics, arts and music mingled in the damp confines of Hampton Court Palace last night for an event which the BBC claimed was not a "leaving party" for the corporation's outgoing director general, Sir John Birt, paid for by licence-fee payers.

At the reception in south-west London for 150 people, which was followed by a performance by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and a recital by the singer Ann Murray, Sir John and Sir Christopher Bland, the chairman of the BBC governors, tried to impress the gathering of "key opinion formers" with plans for millennium programming.

The concert will be part of the BBC's millennium broadcasts and Sir John gave details of programmes and services planned for the whole of 2000.

Those gathered - who included the American ambassador Philip Lader, Baroness Jay of Paddington, the Labour Leader in the Lords, Michael Ancram, the Tory party chairman and British Airway's chairman, Robert Ayling - were treated to what the BBC described as "warm white wine" rather than lavish hospitality reported to be costing pounds 50,000.

"It is a legitimate public-relations event aimed at opinion formers," a BBC spokesman said. "Lots of large organisations do things like this these days and it was to outline our role in celebrating the millennium."

The real subtext to the party is that it is part of a lobbying campaign to get approval from the Government for a levy on the licence fee to finance the BBC's plans for digital expansion.

Also attending the party was Greg Dyke at the end of his first day as director general designate of the corporation.