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Leading Article: We don't want to lose you but we think you ought to go

SMOKE obscures a battlefield called John Birt. Shouts and accusations emerge. Newspapers are conducting a 'witchhunt'. There is a press 'conspiracy' against the BBC. Enemies of Mr Birt - people inside the BBC whose careers have suffered with his plans and reshuffles - are seizing the opportunity to get their own back. The sound of grinding axes, we are told, is the real noise in this affair.

Let us now try, briefly, to clear away the smoke. When, two weeks ago, this newspaper first disclosed the story that the BBC paid its Director-General as a private company rather than as a member of staff, it was not pursuing a hidden, anti-BBC or anti-Birt agenda. The BBC is a British institution worth defending - perhaps one of the few with its reputation reasonably intact - and Mr Birt's influence on it, particularly in news and current affairs, has often been for the good. True, his managerial style has not made him popular at the BBC, but being liked in one's job is not as important as doing the job well.

But the following awkward facts remain. The BBC, under its chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, gave Mr Birt tax advantages it withholds from the majority of its staff and the many genuine freelances it employs. For the world's most reputable broadcasting organisation - whose journalists should and must ask difficult questions relating to the financial lives of other public figures - this was both a shoddy and an undermining deal. The response of Mr Birt and Mr Hussey to the disclosure has been inadequate to the public concern. The mood within the BBC is now mutinous. Mr Birt's reputation has been badly and probably fatally damaged as Director-General. The advice is rarely taken these days in Britain and we offer it sadly, without crocodile tears. Mr Birt and Mr Hussey should resign.