BBC advisers call on Hussey to resign: Pressure increases on chairman of governors over Birt's tax deal

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The Independent Online
PRESSURE increased yesterday on the BBC's chairman of governors, Marmaduke Hussey, as a meeting of the BBC's general advisory council called for his resignation over the John Birt affair.

The 41-strong council of MPs, academics, trade unionists and religious leaders meets the director-general and governors three times a year and normally acts as little more than a sounding board for BBC policy.

But yesterday, after being addressed by Mr Hussey on the question of Mr Birt's employment as a freelance, the committee asked for Mr Hussey, Mr Birt and the governors to leave the room while they discussed the affair. Successive speakers made it clear they felt it would be in the interests of the BBC for Mr Hussey to resign. Fewer than five disagreed.

A statement agreed by the committee said that the 'manner and terms' of Mr Birt's employment were incompatible with the standards and practices expected of a public broadcasting organisation.

Although it was decided it was not the committee's role to pass a resolution, the chairman, Sir Terry Heiser, a former top civil servant, was intending to pass on the strength of feeling to the governors, who are meeting today. Several speakers went further to call for the resignation of Mr Birt, but as many spoke against.

Several members of the committee said afterwards that they had been angered by Mr Hussey's initial remarks to the meeting in which he had argued that there had never been any intention to keep Mr Birt permanently as a freelance. He had also argued incorrectly that there were precedents for a director-general or his deputy being employed in this way. Mr Hussey was understood to have angered the committee by saying the affair was due to a 'press frenzy'.

On Tuesday night, Mr Birt won the full public support of the BBC's board of governors after they examined in detail his financial affairs, but they also made it clear that he could not remain if anything further was found to be wrong with his accounts and they did not stand up to public scrutiny.

The four-hour special meeting was said to have included aggressive questioning of Mr Hussey from governors critical of the arrangements, including Bill Jordan and Keith Oates.

But the governors did not rebel against the leadership of Mr Hussey and his deputy, Lord Barnett. The issue of whether Mr Hussey should resign was never considered. But the point was made that the standing and role of BBC governors was being devalued by the row.

However, the Heritage Department, which is drawing up replacement candidates for the five BBC governors due to retire this summer, including Lord Barnett, has put the process on hold in case it needs also to find a new chairman.

Mr Hussey boasts of the fact that his job is more secure than that of the governor of the Bank of England. He is appointed by the Queen in council and cannot be dismissed or removed, except for a gross misdemeanour.