Outraged about one, gleeful over the other: John Birt made a bad mistake, though it was not the mistake of a bad man. But can the same be said of Marmaduke Hussey?

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The Independent Online
'GLEE' is a useful word, short but with enough consonantal character to make it satisfying to dwell on for emphasis, as in the sentence: 'I don't support John Birt, but I can't bear the glee with which he is being pursued.' When people utter such a sentence (that is, when they begin to feel a bit ashamed of the way they have been enjoying some scandal), they may pause slightly before the word 'glee', as if to savour the 'gl' in advance. There is glee to be derived from glee.

How rarely is the word used in its old, non-pejorative sense, and how rarely is it used reflexively. 'What would you feel if John Birt was forced to resign next Thursday?' 'I should feel glee.' We don't say this. We say: 'Well, of course I admit I should experience a certain schadenfreude.'

So schadenfreude is the respectable German condition, while glee is the unrespectable, only-too-familiar Anglo- Saxon affliction. Perhaps subconsciously we think that the German word was something diagnosed by Freud himself.

As an exercise in glee, the Daily Mail's offer of pounds 500 or a Giorgio Armani suit to the person who could come up with the name of Mr Birt's secretary was outstanding. I think that particular newspaper should decide what its values are. Year in, year out, it sells itself precisely to the designer label-loving constituency. Then it suddenly decides that a taste for its kind of taste is a fault in a public figure.

(I would rather die than buy an Armani suit, however. I would no sooner buy Armani than I would fall for a Hermes headscarf with stirrups and riding crops. My idea of an acceptable Italian suit would be one so superior that I had never heard of the tailor.)

One problem with glee is that it gets in the way of outrage. In fact, to be gleeful and outraged at the same time is a bit like trying to pat your stomach with one hand while drawing circles on your head with the other. However, I think I have solved this problem in the context of the present scandal. I have decided to be gleeful about Marmaduke Hussey's problems, and outraged at John Birt's.

You could say in criticism of Mr Birt that he should have known, when dealing with Mr Hussey, that he was up against a rerun of a horror B-movie. After all, this was the man who called in Alasdair Milne, after 30 years' service at the BBC (during which time he had been through every accepted procedure for appointment), and told him to get out straight away. Then he went to the governors' meeting and told them what he had done.

But when Mr Birt was negotiating with Mr Hussey over his pay, perhaps it was that particular memory which made him go for a special deal. Perhaps he thought: 'There is no job security for the DG here; remember what happened to Alasdair - and has he gone on to other things in broadcasting since he was thrown out? No, he hasn't. This job is the end of the road, and when you leave, you leave acrimoniously. Remember what happened to Michael Checkland. Remember how I was kept in the wings while he just withered on the vine. And then one day poor old Michael couldn't contain himself any longer, and he had to blurt out in public that Marmaduke was a blithering idiot - and that was when we were able to pounce. I didn't come here to get out of the jungle. This is the jungle itself]'

So Mr Birt began to feel sorry for himself and to fret over his various pension arrangements and allowances. But what he did not notice was how his being Mr Hussey's man had put him in Mr Hussey's power. He had been through none of the traditional selection processes, which meant his advancement had caused resentment among rivals to a greater degree than otherwise would have been expected, and yet he was expected to perform an essentially unpopular task.

So there would be two kinds of resentment, whatever he did - the necessary, and the unnecessary. It was remarked to me the other day about Mr Hussey that 'his cruelty is as pointless as his benevolence'. But one might say that the benevolence - the facilitating of Mr Birt's passage into the BBC - did have a point.

Take the question about the tax arrangements, this confidential matter between Mr Birt and his employers. Does it not have a quality of complicitness? Certainly it was an arrangement that could not stand the light of day, and it was striking how quickly Mr Birt abandoned his freelance status, as if he had known all along that it was not really on the cards - known, I mean, subconsciously, known or half-known.

You could say, 'Oh, but it was only when he saw the reaction that he knew', and maybe this is right. But people do not always act so wisely, so swiftly, in this kind of a scandal. They become defensive, rigid with self-righteousness. An example of this more natural, fallible behaviour was Mr Birt's refusal to tell Jeremy Isaacs the name of his secretary. This proved a bad mistake, but it was not the mistake of a bad man (the distinction is worth making). It was not an example of state-of-the-art frankness. But if it sprang from a sudden spurt of feeling, such as: 'You leave my wife out of this', you can sympathise just a little.

Everyone has an Achilles' heel - even Lord Reith, as it transpires. But not everybody is an Achilles' heel. For Marmaduke Hussey, Thursday's meeting brings the prospect of a confrontation with a group of governors few of whom, it appears, knew what he was up to. I would like to be there when P D James speaks her mind.

I met her once, at a lunch when I had misheard her name as Phyllis Jones, so I did not know who she was. She started talking about evil and, as the conversation progressed, I began to think: I ought to know who this is - her grasp of the dark side of life is quite startling. I wanted to stop the flow and say, 'Excuse me, who are you? How do you know these things?'

Yes, I would like to hear what Phyllis has to say to Marmaduke, I would like to hear what they all have to say. Not forgetting, of course, that they are all Tory appointees, and that a part of what is happening at the moment is that we are reliving the consequences of our vindictive Tory past.