Allegations of Birt links with Frost 'untrue'

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The Independent Online
JOHN BIRT, Director-General designate of the BBC, yesterday described allegations that he had risen to prominence in broadcasting because of his links with the television presenter David Frost as 'untrue and defamatory'. He said that if the claims, made by an MP in a Commons motion which carries parliamentary privilege, were repeated outside Parliament he would sue.

The motion, which implied that Mr Frost's patronage was critical to Mr Birt's rise to power, was tabled by Rhodri Morgan, Labour MP for Cardiff West on Tuesday night, the day David Frost announced that his Frost on Sunday show was transferring from TV- am to the BBC.

Mr Morgan urged Mr Birt, currently the deputy Director-General of the BBC, and Mr Frost to explain why a Granada World in Action programme filmed in November 1970 was never shown.

The motion said it was planned as an expose of David Frost's Paradine Productions business dealings, and included an interview by Mr Birt of Mr Frost in which Mr Frost broke down and cried when Mr Birt put allegations to him about his business dealings.

Mr Birt, in a letter to the MP yesterday said: 'In 1970, a World in Action special was made about David Frost; but it was not an expose. Rather it examined the phenomenon of his early success in Britain and America.

'Allegations about his business relations had surfaced in Private Eye. It was intended that these should be raised with him - but only in one part of the programme. When allegations were put to him he responded in a composed manner: the description of the interview in the Early Day Motion is completely inaccurate.

'On further investigation these allegations were demonstrated to be wholly unfounded. As a result no mention of them was made in the film, which was duly prepared for transmission. The programme was not pulled by World in Action but by senior management at Granada, who subsequently decided not to transmit the film. I played no part in that decision: indeed I regretted it.'

Mr Birt says he moved to London Weekend Television at the invitation of its then programme controller, Cyril Bennett, to do a range of programmes, including a series of The Frost Programme. After a few months he was asked to start Weekend World. 'David Frost had no role in the company's management affairs and was not involved in any way in my career progression at LWT.

'I am proud of my subsequent collaborations (outside LWT) with David Frost, including the major post-Watergate interviews with both Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger; and I am pleased that David's lively and respected Sunday morning programme is to be broadcast on the BBC.'

Greg Dyke, managing director of LWT, said yesterday: 'To suggest that John Birt's career at LWT was somehow guided by David Frost is clearly ridiculous. John rose from being a senior producer to director of programming because of his enormous talent.'

Mr Birt was recruited by the BBC in 1987, to reorganise its news and current affairs output. Peter Mandelson, Labour MP for Hartlepool, yesterday tabled an amendment to the motion noting that 'old, untrue and defamatory stories' about Mr Birt and Mr Frost had been 'comprehensively refuted'. Mr Mandelson, former director of communications for the Labour Party, worked for Weekend World, and as a consultant for the BBC after leaving his Labour Party post two years ago.

Mr Morgan said yesterday that Mr Birt had not asked him to withdraw the motion, and that he exercised his own judgement, acting under oath, as an MP, when setting it down. He said that Mr Frost's special deal, which allowed him to sell his BBC interviews to BSkyB, concerned him.

Mr Dyke, who is also chairman of the ITV Association, has urged Conservative MPs to address the issue of cross-media ownership. He told a a meeting of the Conservative backbench media committee that the present legislation was 'totally inadequate to prevent unacceptable concentrations of media power by the end of this decade'.