Leading Article: The right resignation

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The Independent Online
Dear fellow Governors,

I have come to realise over the past two weeks that I made a serious error of judgement in approving John Birt's tax arrangements when he joined the BBC as deputy director-general in 1987. I should have told him that it would be unsuitable for someone in so senior a position, who was expected to take over before long as director-general, not to be a full-time employee of the corporation and be paid on the same basis as other staff. I should furthermore have informed you all about the unprecedented nature of the arrangement. My failure to give Mr Birt the right direction put him in a false position, and has weakened the standing of the governors. In recognition of this regrettable error,

I will be offering the Home Secretary my resignation.

Yours contritely, Marmaduke Hussey.

SO MUCH for what the chairman of the BBC's Board of Governors should now do. His was an unduly political appointment, and he soon demonstrated his interventionist style by brutally sacking the then director- general, Alasdair Milne. Too often he seemed to represent the Government's views rather than the public interest. His term should not have been extended in 1991 by the Home Secretary, Kenneth Baker.

If there is not a shadow of doubt that Mr Hussey should resign, the question of Mr Birt's future is more complex. The two key questions are: first, have the revelations about his tax arrangements so damaged his authority that he could not operate effectively as director-general? Second, even assuming his authority is diminished, are his strengths so great that the BBC would suffer a net loss if he left?

The first question can be answered only by the staff. Some senior members have come out publicly in his support. But there is no doubting the resentment that his tax arrangements have aroused at virtually every level - especially among those working part-time but obliged to have their tax deducted at source. One of Mr Birt's strengths has been that he is not afraid to make enemies, and he has made many. But those prepared to be disliked should not lay themselves open to attack. He has now done so. If he survives, he will have to adjust his style. A wiser and humbler John Birt might yet regain some of the goodwill and - with time - authority that he has lost.

It is hard not to be ambivalent about Mr Birt's gifts and their value to the BBC. The credit side looks strong. He saw with clarity how public sector broadcasting had to re-create itself by becoming more market-oriented without sacrificing quality. He appreciated the need for a strategy, conceived one that was largely convincing, and had the ability, robustness and self-confidence to implement it. His merging of the current affairs and news departments, for example, succeeded both in cutting costs and raising quality.

On the negative side, a certain lack of human warmth has made it difficult for him to gain the full backing of staff for his wide-ranging programme of reforms. But the impression left by his tax arrangements is misleading: John Birt is far more interested in power than in money. His worst characteristic is his conviction that he is right come what may. With that goes a tendency to be dogmatic, obstinate and autocratic.

Taking both Mr Birt's qualities and defects, it is in the BBC's interests that he should remain. That judgement would, however, require revision if further damaging revelations about his financial affairs came to light. The remaining governors must assure themselves that such a possibility can be excluded. Having done so, they should reaffirm their confidence in his leadership.