How the BBC's board got its story straight, at last: Much food, but no resignations. Michael Leapman reports on a week of dinners, dissent, and hard-talking

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The Independent Online
WHY DID the BBC governors chicken out? At least three of them were full of sound and fury over John Birt's former salary arrangements before being summoned to an emergency meeting at the BBC Television Centre in London's White City at 5pm last Tuesday.

One of the dissidents, the engineering union leader Bill Jordan, was further angered by being given barely 20 minutes' notice of the meeting. But he arrived in time to join 10 other governors (the whole board except for Jane Glover, the conductor) in the Bridge Lounge, a shabby conference area so close to the canteen that it smells permanently of cooking. There they watched a live, hour-long docu-drama that may be one of the most effective pieces of theatre Mr Birt has ever produced, certainly the most vital for his future.

In an embodiment of his famed 'mission to explain', he and a representative of his new accountants, Ernst and Young, presented an analysis of the accounts of John Birt Productions Ltd, responding to the anger among BBC staff and some governors that Mr Birt was receiving favourable tax treatment by not being on the payroll.

The board were impressed by the presentation - but not quite satisfied.

Not only Mr Jordan but also Keith Oates, managing director of Marks & Spencer, and the Scottish governor, Sir Graham Hills, came to the meeting determined that someone should be called to account for the debacle. They and others insisted that, if Mr Birt were not to be fired, he should indemnify the corporation against any threat of retribution from the Inland Revenue.

That commitment made, the dissidents bowed to strong pressure from the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, and the vice- chairman, Lord Barnett, and endorsed a statement that seemed to let Mr Birt off the hook: 'The Board of Governors acknowledges the widespread public and staff concern that John Birt was not employed on a staff basis and accepts full responsibility for the errors made and apologises for them.'

The statement promised further and better details of the findings after the board's scheduled meeting on Thursday morning. It did not in itself rule out the possibility that a head could still roll before the week was out.

That, at least, was the view being expressed at the Royal Lancaster Hotel, where, while the governors were holding their meeting just two miles away, most of the senior figures of British television were attending the Royal Television Society's tribute to Mr Birt's predecessor, Sir Michael Checkland.

'Someone's head must be chopped, so that this thing can work its way out through the system' was the prevailing view. Sir Michael himself identified his favoured victim as Mr Hussey, who, at 70, might have been thought an appropriate and fairly painless sacrifice.

If the Birt version of the Money Programme was the dramatic highlight of the week, the pinnacle of farce came next morning. A meeting had been scheduled of the BBC's General Advisory Council, 41 people charged with offering 'constructive criticism and advice' to the governors and management.

The council, whose work has never before inspired controversy, or even interest, took it upon itself to discuss whether Mr Hussey should resign. The members decided to insert this extra item at the start of the formal agenda - at which the attendant governors and managers promptly walked out until the discussion was over.

For an hour the panjandrums cooled their heels morosely in an adjoining room, mingling with catering staff who were trying to set out the buffet lunch. When they went back they were incandescent, and grew angrier still on learning that the GAC had decided Mr Hussey should resign - a piece of constructive criticism and advice that was to go unheeded.

When he did get a chance to speak, Mr Hussey said the council members had been swayed by the 'media frenzy' that he blamed for the fuss. 'He didn't recognise a moral dimension at all,' said a committee member.

That night the drama moved to the historic Council Room at Broadcasting House, hung with the pictures of past director-generals who between them could not boast a single file at Companies House. There the governors and board of management were hosting their farewell dinner for the well-dined Sir Michael Checkland.

For the pounds 12,000 or more that they receive for their part-time duties, governors of the BBC are obliged, not only to safeguard the public interest and attend monthly meetings, but also to eat up an awful lot of rotten meals.

It is one of the few remaining institutions run largely around the corporate dinner table. In their five-year term, governors with reasonably sturdy constitutions can expect to chomp their way through at least 65 dinners with 11 people they would not normally choose as companions for a convivial evening. Many are served, like this one, in Broadcasting House, whose kitchen, despite Mr Birt's attempts to introduce stylish nouvelle cuisine a couple of years ago, is still far from London's finest.

But it was not just the prospect of the food that made Wednesday's dinner one that most guests would have loved to have found a plausible excuse for dodging. The governors were saying farewell to a man whose career as director- general they had decided to foreshorten during another rancorous dinner nearly two years earlier - and moreover a man who had the previous night suggested that the chairman should fall on his sword.

On the Basil Fawlty principle of not mentioning the war, the subjects of the BBC, the governors and Mr Birt's tax returns were not raised at the top table, where Mr and Mrs Hussey, Sir Michael and Lady Checkland and Mr and Mrs Birt sat, along with Geraint Stanley Jones, chief executive of the Welsh station S4C, and Sir Curtis Keeble, a former governor and once ambassador to Moscow, presumably there to deploy his diplomatic skills should open warfare break out. The stoic Mrs Birt may have enjoyed it least of all, but no doubt it fell within her duties as a pounds 29,000-a-year director and secretary of Mr Birt's little enterprise.

The formal speeches were polite and uncontroversial, with only a slight frisson when Sir Michael said pointedly that he hoped he had left the BBC in safe hands. Then the governors returned to their homes or hotels to prepare for their regular meeting the next day at Bush House, headquarters of the BBC World Service.

This final act of the drama was an anti-climax. The governors had already decided that Mr Birt was not to go, and Mr Hussey did not find it hard to persuade them that his own departure at this time would not do the BBC any good.

The meeting was over by lunchtime, the statement issued in the afternoon: 'A mistake. . .we deeply regret the dismay it has caused. . .the question of whether resignations would be in the intrest of the BBC was discussed. . .it was agreed that they would not.' Mr Birt and Mr Hussey had won their battle. The war, however, may not yet be over. As the governors made their way home, many were still in a bitter mood, fulminating about the impertinence of the General Advisory Council, the outspoken anger of the BBC staff unions, the aggression of the press, and the 'treachery' of the old BBC warriors who had shot their barbs - Paul Fox, Alasdair Milne, Bill Cotton, David Attenborough and Sir Michael Checkland himself.

(Photograph omitted)

Leading article, page 22

Neal Ascherson, page 23

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