Leading Article: A bad BBC mistake

Click to follow
AN APPALLING lapse in morality occurred at the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1929. The head of its engineering division, Peter Eckersley, got involved in a divorce case. Eckersley was a brilliant radio engineer; it was said that he knew more about broadcasting than anyone in the country. Yet Lord Reith, the BBC's first Director-General, sent for him and said: 'My son, you have strayed from the paths of righteousness. Our ways must part forever. You are dismissed.'

Now Lord Reith, even in his own time, was a strange and forbidding figure, frowning like an Old Testament prophet on the frivolities of jazz-age Britain. The index to his biography by Andrew Boyd is as good a guide as any to his turbulent character. Look at the entries under his name, reach the letter S, and you have: self-abasement, self-belief, self-condemnation, self-confidence, self-conscious foolishness, self-deception, self-doubt, self- dramatisation, self-effacement, self-esteem, self-indulgence, self-justification, self-knowledge, self-pity, self-recrimination, self-righteousness, self-sufficiency. Clearly a boss who was something of a nightmare - and yet Lord Reith gave the BBC its moral ethos, its mission, its crucial role in national life, and its reputation as the world's most respected broadcaster. In a century not crowded with British success stories, that is a great achievement, and it has by and large survived despite political attacks, budget cuts and ever fiercer competition.

The tax arrangements enjoyed until last week by its new Director-General cannot be excused as the kind of routine blunder that any management must sometimes commit. This was a very large mistake with repercussions that will not be rectified by John Birt's swift announcement that in future his income tax will be deducted at source in the usual manner. It casts a harsh light both on Mr Birt and the BBC governors who hired him and went along with the deal which paid him as a private company rather than as a full-time BBC employee. This may not be illegal - though many questions remain to be answered regarding the costs incurred by John Birt Productions Ltd. But what does it say to the country and the world: that company shall reduce tax unto company? What does it say to the 23,000 BBC employees whom Mr Birt directs? Why should they not all be little private companies, setting their wives and their suits against tax? Why should bus drivers not do it? Why not men and women on the dole (expenditure on limited company's bus fares to collect dole money, pounds 2.50; one television licence to keep limited company cheerful in the afternoons, pounds 80)?

The BBC governors who hired Mr Birt argue that allowing him to continue to minimise his tax played a vital part in luring him from commercial television. Even allowing their assumption that Mr Birt was the only possible candidate for the job - a view that would be hotly contested inside the BBC - this is still a shoddy argument. It says that the gap between what the BBC could afford to pay and what Mr Birt thought he was worth would be filled by the rest of us as taxpayers. It does not seem to have occurred to anyone on the governors' board - Marmaduke Hussey as chairman, or any other of the great and allegedly good - that this was, to use a Reithian word, wrong. Even when this newspaper last week broke the story of Mr Birt's company, the response was far from open confession and apology. We were told it was a 'common practice in the industry'. Mr Birt himself merely said that he would change his tax status in response to the dismay of his staff at 'the prospect of being led through a difficult period of change by a Director-General who is not himself employed on a staff basis'. The biographies of men such as Mr Birt and the BBC governors would have shorter entries in the index under S for self: self-interest and self-ignorance.

Very few people get the sack for involvement in divorce cases these days, and thank God for that; the Independent on Sunday as well as the BBC would have rather fewer staff. But when Lord Reith, reaching into that same morality, warned in 1966 against a coming age of 'the mini-men', he spoke truer than he knew.