Where is he now? And for how long?

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The Independent Online
ONE of the most durable media formats is the 'Where Are They Now?' item, in which a former headline idol is revisited, usually getting by in a seaside caravan on a gas ring and memories. So readers may, like me, have been wondering about the whereabouts of John Birt, the BBC's Director-General, who was scarcely out of the papers in early 1993, but has since fallen from prominence. What, I tried to find out, is he up to now?

John, a freelance when we last met him, has still not managed to secure a staff position at the BBC, although he says he hopes to move on to the payroll very soon as Director-General. And, although John has been too shy to admit this himself, colleagues say he is about to get a pay rise, perhaps as big an increase as 30 per cent.

You might, I suppose, argue that it is refreshing to encounter a 'Where Are They Now?' piece in which the subject has become, if anything, more confident and more prosperous than at the height of his fame. But I am not sure I can agree with you. For me, these revelations about what Mr Birt is doing now were as shocking as those sports-page stories about former Cup Final heroes pawning their medals to pay the rent.

Consider his actions. A man has been horribly and publicly embarrassed over the revelation that, as Deputy Director-General and then D-G of the BBC, his salary was paid to a private company in order to reduce taxation. After a dangerous few days that man survives in office, partly because of a public whip-round by the British establishment. What, if he were sensible, should that man do next? Well, you might think, he should retreat into the shadows behind his desk for a lengthy period, he should sign a staff contract as fast as one was handed to him and he should avoid public discussion about his emoluments for as long as possible.

But Mr Birt has done none of these things. Despite at least a year's warning of his appointment as D-G, and five months in the job, he has not yet agreed a deal. Middlemarch was written in less time than it has taken to write Mr Birt's contract. He has pledged to make the corporation more efficient, and yet, in his brave new BBC, it apparently takes the personnel department months to give someone a job.

Most spectacularly, less than two months after the earlier flap, Mr Birt has managed to couple his name with the word 'money' in headlines and articles again. The rumour is that he will receive about pounds 50,000 more for the privilege (and I am not using that word loosely) of running the BBC than did his predecessor, Sir Michael Checkland. This is a rate of inflation far ahead of the national one, and indeed, not far behind that of Hindenburg. BBC spokesmen dispute the arithmetic, but I think we can accept that Mr Birt is trying to secure for himself a substantially greater whack than the last occupant.

Why the discrepancy? Cynics and BBC staff (these groups sometimes overlap) have concluded that the jump in money compensates Mr Birt for the cold-water shock to his wallet of entering the PAYE system. Rubbish, say his supporters in the corporation: Mr Birt's money had to go up because his two top lieutenants, Bob Phillis and Liz Forgan, had joined the BBC (from ITN and Channel 4) on salaries already higher than the old D-G's fee. And you can't have a boss worse off than his charges, can you?

This argument seems to me the equivalent of someone saying they had to eat a cake because they bought it: the inevitability has been willed. For the past 20 years, the rough rule in television has been that you went to ITV for the money and to the BBC for the BBC. As long as his organisation remains publicly funded, Mr Birt would be unwise to ditch this distinction. His 'broadcasting high ground' policy dictates that the BBC will not dumbly compete with ITV in programming, so why should it do so in terms of executive recompense?

Beyond the general principle, Mr Birt's history makes it doubly unwise for him to start shaking his pockets again. If the reports of his tortoise-like negotiations over contracts and his pursuit of a huge new salary are correct, then there are only three possible explanations:

1. Mr Birt has been so energised by his survival, is so convinced that the earlier tax spat was a 'coup that failed' ( the Sunday Times) by BBC enemies of his management methods, that he now believes himself to be invincible;

2. The new Director-General genuinely does not see or believe that management behaviour in a publicly funded company should be different from behaviour in a commercial one;

3. Now privately convinced of his previous guilt and his unsuitability to continue at the BBC, Mr Birt is seeking an end. His latest behaviour is a suicide attempt. He is like an adulterer, deliberately leaving the hotel bill lying around the house.

The first or second explanation would be alarming for the future of the BBC. Without digging up the old rows, it should be set on record - in opposition to the 'attempted coup' theory - that not all of those who wrote and broadcast in March that Mr Birt should go were his established enemies. I, for one, had been more or less a supporter: since his arrival at the BBC the news coverage had become, in my view, more authoritative and fluent. But the common arguments that his management reforms had 'gone too far' for him to be removed, and that anyway no clear successor existed, seemed to me morally irrelevant. It was like saying that Nixon should have stayed because it would have cost so much to take the tape recorders out and because Gerald Ford was a fool.

I also believed that, if Mr Birt were to stay, it would have to be in a new guise: contrite, open, conscious of the price of public service. In recent weeks, Mr Birt's defenders within the BBC have been quietly putting it around that the tax business was their man's vital rite of passage to public service broadcasting. He had come from a 'different world' - the phrase his placemen used, as if London Weekend Television, his last employer, were separated from the BBC by a galaxy rather than a river - but now he knew the game.

The most worrying aspect of the latest controversy, therefore, is the suggestion that promises of a reformed and chastened character look as wishful as the Tory whips' promises of a new 'listening' prime minister after Margaret Thatcher defeated Sir Anthony Meyer in 1989. She proved not to have learnt the lesson that a wobble is a warning of a possible topple.

It looks as if Mr Birt may not have done, either. His latest negotiations suggest that if he didn't come from a different world, he certainly lives in one. In a speech last week, Mr Birt's mentor, the Chairman of the Board of Governors, Marmaduke Hussey - a septuagenarian you would describe as burnt-out, except that there exists so little evidence he has ever been alight - promised that the BBC would be 'honest and open'. But the sense of sleazy, greedy secret deals remains; the feeling that Mr Birt and Mr Hussey still haven't got the point.