Any Questions in Birmingham
I went to do "Any Questions" in Birmingham this evening, at Lordswood School. This is the third time that I've done this -- and it has all the pleasures and terrors and adrenaline of an exam (which is no doubt why I enjoy it so much): you have to question-spot, revise hard, and then go for it when the hoped for question arrives on your plate. I cant tell you how many hours I had spent this morning going through a) the career of Michael Jackson, and b) the expenses claims of BBC executives (my conclusion being that, plus or minus a couple of rocky judgment calls, these were pretty austere).
This evening was a particularly nice occasion. For a start I was met, when we got to the school, by an excellent girl who was hoping to come to Newnham next year -- and was very keen on the college. But next, the questions and answers raised all kinds of issues.
Was it always a poisoned chalice to be a child star? Well, yes it was, I thought. For Michael Jackson cf Holly Steele??
We soon went on to BBC expenses. And the panellists by and large were not outraged by the lists that had just been published: they were mostly pretty modest (I had already noted quite a few entries of, for example, £2.32 for a bottle of water and a snack, as well as the range of very low cost taxi bills). Interestingly, when Jonathan Dimbleby asked the audience what they thought, they were overwhelmingly un-bothered by the BBC expenses -- although they were bothered by the salaries of the BBC executives.
Overall, it was a very friendly discussion. I had two "bothers" that I didn't quite get in, or not enough. Max Hastings seemed to have it in for public sector 'fat cats' whose privileges and pensions should be removed -- to match the pain of those in the private sector.. Well, I'm in the public sector and I dont see many fat cats. Besides, the whole deal about being in the public sector was that you had a lower salary -- rewarded by job security and a pension. We never made the money of private sector bankers, who always took the risks and benefits of being in the private sector. So demanding we give up our "fat cat" pensions seemed a bit much.
The parliamentarians, on the other hand, both seemed enthralled to the idea of transparency. All was going to be well with public life as soon as it was "transparent". MPs expenses were going to be transparent, the BBC was going to be transparent... all this information about receipts, expenses, etc was soon to be available online.They didn't appear to have thought what it was that receipts didnt tell us (the BBC executive actually took a taxi because her two-year-old had been vomiting until ten minutes before the meeting . . .). Nor did they seem to have considered the information over-load that this transparency would entail. So many pieces of documentation are going to be available about all public figures that we will never have time to check it all out -- publishing it will become a cypher.
It was a packed programme and we didnt get to the last question, though we took it off air. This was the Elgin Marbles question. The British Museum would have been delighted to find the panellists in agreement: that there was no overwhelming case to send the marbles back (as you will know, I am "on the fence", but could certainly sign up to the "no overwhelming case" position. Pity in a way that we werent on air -- to have this very mixed political crew all agreeing that there was a real case for the marbles staying in Britain would have been worth hearing.
(The picture is of Hilary Benn with a model of his father Tony made by one of the kids at Lordswood.)