Birt admits pay row 'damage'

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The Independent Online
JOHN BIRT, the Director-General of the BBC, last night accepted that the revelation about his BBC pay through a private company damaged his relationships with staff.

'I hope that the speedy action I took . . . will be registered with them. I've talked to a lot of staff as I go round the BBC and I hope to persuade them we can go forward together.'

In an hour-long public interview with Jeremy Isaacs, the founder of Channel 4, Mr Birt refused to reveal the name of the secretary who had received a pounds 15,000 payment set out in his accounts for secretarial assistance. 'It is not right I have to reveal every detail of my personal matters, and I don't intend to.'

He said it was 'frankly a surprise to see the degree of reaction inside and outside the BBC. I have to accept the view of the BBC staff and those outside who have commented that it is not appropriate for those who lead the BBC not to be employed by it. I, in turn, have been asking our staff to understand I come from another world . . . (laughter from the audience) a more commercial world.'

Mr Birt was speaking at the National Film Theatre on London's South Bank before an audience which included many of his own staff, as well as heads of department and Lord Barnett, the deputy chairman of the BBC, who along with Marmaduke Hussey, the chairman, has borne the brunt of criticism for tolerating Mr Birt's unusual arrangements.

Mr Birt said he had decided in the middle of last week, three days after the story was broken by the Independent on Sunday, to subject his accounts to independent scrutiny since the main reason for having a private company had been not to save tax but provide him with a personal plan.

'I invited in Ernst & Young. They had complete access to my accounts. They made their report at the end of the week. The summary was published on Monday.'

Mr Isaacs asked him whether, when he was appointed deputy director-general six years ago, he had not expected to become the director-general: in his letter to the Times on Monday, Mr Birt had said he had a five-year contract with a specific brief. He said: 'It was by no means assured.'

Asked what makes the BBC special, he said: 'The BBC is dedicated to integrity, truthfulness of our programmes, willingness to take risks, an interest in attracting people of high ability. It has drawn out of British culture a new form of art.' His grilling opened a two- day inquiry into the future of the BBC organised by the British Film Institute, together with BAFTA.