Should John Birt resign? This is how the BBC's governors have expressed their support for him: Michael Leapman and Will Bennett explain how the week started badly for the Director-General - and ended a lot worse
Sunday 14 March 1993
Silence ('He is not in the country')
Silence ('He'll be back later, though Heaven knows when')
'I don't want to say anything at all'
Silence ('She's in the USA promoting a book. I haven't a contact number')
Dr Gwyn Jones
Silence ('He's not here. I'll fax your query to him')
Sir Kenneth Bloomfield
'What I have to say I shall say to my colleagues when I next meet them'
Sir Graham Hills
Silence ('He's not here. I'm not sure what time he will be back')
Silence ('He's not here. Can I take a message?')
Dr Jane Glover
Silence ('She doesn't like to talk about her work as a governor')
Lord Nicholas Gordon Lennox
Silence ('We cannot take your call at the moment')
'Talking off the record is not my style'
Dr John Roberts
Silence ('He's in between meetings. Can I take your number?')
AS AN expression of public support for John Birt, the embattled Director-General of the BBC, it was frankly underwhelming. But the great and the good who comprise the Corporation's Board of Governors were polite about it.
So were their wives, their secretaries and their agents. Even their answering machines had a certain well bred charm. The excuses were many and various: some almost believable. The message to the scores of reporters who have been calling the 12 part- time governors throughout the week has always been the same: 'Sorry, can't say a word.'
Their common vow of silence was entirely voluntary. They could have taken the opportunity to declare support for Mr Birt in the ringing tones suitable to their exalted office.
, their chairman, was reported to have urged - even begged - them to do so. He wanted their endorsement to the statement that he and Lord Barnett, the vice-chairman, had made last Monday, describing Mr Birt as a man of 'integrity and conviction' and complaining that the fuss over his financial and tax arrangements was 'misleading and unjust'.
But from their comfortable mansions in Wales, Scotland and Ulster, their town houses in Chelsea, their Oxford colleges, the offices where they perform their full- time jobs - silence. For Mr Birt, that silence was ominous. It could be the prelude to the failure of his bid to cling on to the job that, throughout the week, seems to have been slipping away from him.
To understand why the governors have been backward in coming forward we need to return to July 1991, when the board was deciding over a long dinner whether to offer Michael (now Sir Michael) Checkland a second five-year term as Director-General. They were almost evenly split but Mr Hussey and Lord Barnett, were keen to give the post to Mr Checkland's deputy, John Birt.
Some governors pointed out that this was quite improper, that if Mr Checkland was to be replaced a formal selection procedure had to be initiated - the post advertised, an appointments board formed, interviews held. Mr Hussey and Lord Barnett would not have that. They knew whom they wanted and they wanted to appoint him there and then. As a sop to the doubters, Mr Checkland was given an extra year - a disastrous lame-duck period when nothing decisive could be achieved.
The way it was done set a precedent. This year, when Bob Phillis was appointed Deputy Director-General and Liz Forgan managing director of radio, those jobs were not advertised either. It seemed that the BBC's old hiring practices, cumbersome but ultimately accountable, were being discarded in the name of efficiency.
Yet traditional procedures often have merits that are not instantly recognisable. In Mr Birt's case, the short-cutting of his appointment has left him highly vulnerable now that the heat is on. He is in the position of a usurping king - if he turns out a good one, any dubious claims to the throne will be ignored, but one slip and his lack of legitimacy counts heavily against him. That slip has been made. And because he has never made much effort to ingratiate himself with BBC staff, he finds himself almost - though not totally - without friends.
On Wednesday, the governors will gather in London for a belated farewell dinner for Sir Michael. Next day they will have their regular meeting. Mr Birt could well have decided before then that his position is untenable. Last night his chances of survival were looking slimmer.
For John Birt the week started badly, perked up briefly, then got a lot worse. Sunday, 7 March: Fresh revelations about the company accounts of John Birt Productions. Expenses claimed in recent years include sums for a 'secretarial assistant', a Volkswagen car, a satellite dish and clothing, believed to include his favoured Armani suits.
His accountant is identified as Michael Henshaw, described as 'an adviser to many writers and broadcasters'. For some insiders, this is the most shocking revelation of all. 'Like most of us,' said a senior broadcaster, 'I stopped using Henshaw in the Eighties. The fact that John stayed with him says a lot about his judgement '
Monday, 8 March: Birt issues a second statement of regret - the first had come a week earlier when he agreed to join the BBC's payroll immediately after the initial fuss. He adds that most of the reporting of his financial affairs has been 'seriously misleading'. He appointed Ernst and Young, reputable accountants, to look into his books for 1990-1, and they found that 'the net benefit for the Birt household' of the unusual payment arrangements was pounds 810.
and Lord Barnett issue their statement of support despite the fact that 'we do not normally respond to comment'. There is no explanation why the other ten governors did not add their voices to the statement.
Tuesday, 9 March: Viewers of late evening news bulletins were treated to an unusual sight - Mr Birt sitting on a stage before an audience, being grilled on his financial affairs by Jeremy Isaacs, General Director of the Royal Opera House. Was it some modern version of the Inquisition? No, an interview arranged many weeks ago as a prelude to a seminar at the National Film Theatre about the BBC's future.
In it, a contrite Mr Birt repeats his regrets and explains: 'I come from another world.'
He looks as though he would like to return there when Mr Isaacs (himself a former candidate for the Director-Generalship) asks him about the identity of the 'secretarial assistant' in his accounts. He snaps that it is a private matter.
Wednesday, 10 March: David Attenborough, television naturalist and former Controller of BBC2, says Mr Hussey and Lord Barnett are to blame for having agreed to Mr Birt's deal. Many BBC staffers (who spent a large part of the week on the phone to newspapers) agree.
Thursday, 11 March: Daily Mail offers reward of pounds 500 or an Armani suit to anyone who can identify the 'secretarial assistant' in Mr Birt's accounts.
Simultaneously the Financial Times media correspondent reveals that it is none other than Mr Birt's wife Jane, and claims the prize. Jane Birt thus appears in the company's accounts twice (once as a director) with a total remuneration of pounds 29,000 for the year.
Friday, 12 March: Stirrings of rebellion among governors. Several speak anonymously to reporters, criticising Mr Birt's pay arrangements and the fact that they had not been told about them.
The Daily Mail offers another prize - for a photograph of the elusive Mrs Birt. There are other revelations about Mr Henshaw: the Independent writes that he has no formal accountancy qualification, and other papers detail his colourful reputation among a large former clientele of arts and media people. Mr Birt is reported to have dispensed with his services since the scandal broke.
Alasdair Milne, Mr Birt's predecessor but one, criticises Mr Birt and the governors. Calls for Mr Birt's resignation come from Labour MPs and leaders of the broadcasting unions, still campaigning against the introduction next month of the 'producer choice' system of making programmes, which could casualise many staff jobs. Mr Birt is routinely blamed for this system but in fact it was put in place under Michael Checkland. Mr Birt spent most of his time as Deputy Director-General reviving the flagging current news and current affairs department, where the number of jobs was greatly increased.
On Radio 4's Any Questions? tonight the panel splits evenly. Lord Howe, the Conservative peer, and Graham Mather, of the European Policy Forum, say Mr Birt should stay and carry on his work of bringing commercial disciplines into the BBC. Bill Morris, of the Transport and General Workers Union, derides this as the establishment protecting its own, while Baroness Blackstone attacks the implication that public servants should use the same tax- avoiding schemes as some private businesses do.
A clutch of press and television journalists descend on the sunny Welsh village of Crickadarn, near Builth Wells, where the Birts have a weekend home. The couple are not there - he is at his London base in Wandsworth while Mrs Birt is said to have flown to America - so the reporters are forced to rough it at the nearby Llangoed Hall country hotel at pounds 95 a night, pounds 30 for the five-course gourmet dinner and pounds 25 for two hours of clay pigeon shooting.
Saturday, 13 March: David Mellor, who resigned from the Government after personal embarrassments of a different kind, defends Mr Birt on Radio 4's
Today programme, accusing the press of engaging in 'a typical old-fashioned witch-hunt where people are going in and enjoying the thrill of the chase'. Roger Gale, Conservative MP for Thanet North, denounces the 'totally scurrilous campaign' but veteran broadcaster Ludovic Kennedy says Mr Birt should go.
The feeling grows that he has no real alternative. In the BBC, bets are being taken as to when he will fall on his sword and who will succeed him. Thursday afternoon is the favoured time, but some say it could be sooner. Front runners for the succession are Mr Phillis, his newly-appointed deputy who has not yet taken up his post, and John Tusa, the former managing director of the World Service.
The Daily Mail tracks down a ten-year-old picture of Mrs Birt. The governors keep their silence.
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