Outcry renews interest in role of governors

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The Independent Online
THE OUTCRY over John Birt's tax arrangements yesterday renewed interest in the BBC's governors and their ability to represent the public interest, in particular the chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, and his deputy, Lord Barnett of Heywood and Royton.

This latest scandal comes after a series of own goals, including their decision 20 months ago to appoint John Birt over an informal dinner, and their extravagant conferences at Lucknam Park. 'It is one thing to ask for payments to be channelled through your private company, quite another for the governors to agree', a senior BBC executive said. 'It is, once again, an example of why we need a new chairman,' another said.

The remuneration of the director-general and deputy is set by a committee which consists of Mr Hussey, Lord Barnett, and Keith Oates, finance director of Marks & Spencer.

Changes in the board may be imminent since five of the BBC's 12 governors are due to retire, starting from the end of this month, and the Department for National Heritage, which is responsible for broadcasting, says that the search for new governors is well advanced.

Those retiring are Lord Barnett, the novelist Baroness James, Mr Oates, John Roberts, a historian, and Bill Jordan, the trade union leader.

The most critical change will come with a replacement for Lord Barnett, who was given a two-year extension in 1991.

He is now facing retirement after seven years. The need for a new broom as deputy chairman is widely accepted.

Lord Barnett has played a powerful role, together with Mr Hussey, in pressing for Mr Birt's appointment and what many BBC staff view as over-rapid and destructive changes. Most recently, he has headed the special governors' audit committee investigating the pounds 60m overspend in the television service.

One difficulty, however, lies in describing to potential recruits from the great and the good what their role will be: the duties, powers and privileges seem certain to change under the new charter arrangements to be negotiated with Government, probably next year.

The governors have already said that they intend to become a more strategic body, setting corporate goals and assessing the corporation's performance. But, potentially, this places more day- to-day power in the hands of the director-general.

(Photograph omitted)