BBC governors back Birt and admit 'errors': Director-General of the BBC re-emerges in public as support for his position strengthens despite continuing controversy over his tax affairs

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THE BBC governors admitted last night that they had made errors in helping John Birt to avoid tax by not making him join the staff when he became Director- General.

But following their first meeting since it was revealed 10 days ago that Mr Birt had been employed as a freelance, the governors issued a unanimous statement giving him their full support.

The statement said the governors acknowledged public and staff concern that Mr Birt was not employed on a staff basis, accepted full responsibility for the errors made and apologised. They will make a fuller statement after a board meeting tomorrow.

The governors made no mention of the position of Marmaduke Hussey, their chairman, who has been widely criticised for approving the arrangements that allowed Mr Birt to claim large allowances against tax when he was Deputy Director-General, and then allowing him to retain his freelance status when he took over this year as Director-General.

Sir Michael Checkland, who was retired as Director-General to make way for Mr Birt, said last night that Mr Hussey should step down in the autumn.

He said Mr Birt should be given a year's probation after which his performance should be assessed by a new chairman and vice-chairman. The present vice-chairman, Lord Barnett, is due to retire in the autumn in any event.

Sir Michael was speaking at a dinner to mark his retirement given by the Royal Television Society. By coincidence, it was held as the governors met at Television Centre to discuss the crisis caused by the revelations about Mr Birt's unusual salary arrangements.

Sir Michael said that if Mr Birt had understood the workings of the BBC and the feelings of its staff he would have gone on the payroll when he became Director- General on 1 January. But he said that it was a worse error by the chairman and vice-chairman not to insist that he did so. He said that John Birt should not himself resign because that would create a vacuum at the top when the BBC was going through a period of change.

Last October Sir Michael criticised Mr Hussey for the decision to give him only one more year as Director-General before handing over to Mr Birt. He said that Mr Hussey was too old to be chairman and he repeated that point last night when saying that there should be a compulsory retirement age of 70 for BBC governors.

'He and I have discussed how 10 years is too long in a top job and by the autumn he will have been chairman for seven years.'

Tonight Mr Hussey will be the host at the BBC's own farewell dinner for Sir Michael. Governors, the board of management and guests will gather in the corporation's council chamber lined with portraits of former director- generals.

One insider said: 'It will be a dinner from Hell.'

(Photograph omitted)