The MT Diary: Howard Davies

On the Berlin beat with Sir Ian; the de-Graded Beeb; my mission: to read a ton of novels.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Berlin Postbahnhof is quite a recherche location for dinner. The Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Ian Blair and I tried it out the other day. For a century it was the hub of the German postal system: trains departing with meticulous efficiency for Hamburg in the north-west, Breslau (now Wroclaw) in the south and Konigsberg (now Kaliningrad) in the east. But it found itself on the wrong side of the Wall and fell into disuse and disrepair. Now it has been restored, at least partially. The walls are bare but the ambience is gemutlich. This year, it has hosted both the London School of Economics and the Arctic Monkeys (our alumnus Sir Mick must be turning in his grave, so to speak).

We were conferencing furiously on the future of mega-cities, courtesy of Deutsche Bank. German chancellor Angela Merkel turned up and made a pretty speech. We talked density, migration, pollution, congestion and terrorism. This was all Sir Ian's beat and the foreigner seemed impressed.

Then after dinner, slipping my police escort, I decided to walk back across central Berlin to my hotel. It was 11 o'clock on a mild Friday night. For the first mile, up to the Alexanderplatz, I passed not a single soul. It didn't feel dangerous, but the absence of people was eerie.

The reconstruction has been magnificent, but the Germans have, in effect, thrown a big party and no-one has turned up. Property prices have fallen 40% in a decade. The Poles have come to London instead, in spite of density, pollution and terrorism. Great architects, central planning and three opera houses don't seem to be enough to make a living city.

There's not much opera in Abu Dhabi, but a lot of construction, on a rather more high-rise scale than in Berlin. The British Embassy used to be one of only two two-storey buildings in town; the other belonged to the Sheikh. Now its agreeable garden, once on the seafront, is surrounded by skyscrapers built on reclaimed land. No doubt the Treasury has its beady eye on it as a potential building site - which would be a shame.

Given the price of prime building land in the Emirates, the proceeds might well be enough to solve the BBC's licence fee problems. The gossip has it that the fee row was one reason for Michael Grade's sudden departure, though the seven-figure package at ITV might have been another.

ITV's shareholders may be pleased, though the shares of Grade's previous company, First Leisure, underperformed the index by 60% during his time in charge. But the big loser is the Government, which designed a governance structure for the BBC around their man, whom they have now mislaid. To lose one chairman is unfortunate, to lose two is worse than careless.

The new BBC structure is bizarre. There is a Trust (which isn't a trust but a kind of regulator) and a corporate board chaired by the chief executive. Why this arrangement, which is rightly unknown elsewhere? Because the Government promised Grade when he took the job that there wouldn't be two chairmen. So sensible recommendations by Lord Burns were ignored. Even the FA took his advice, but not the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

Now Grade has gone, Tessa Jowell should rethink. If she doesn't, Mark Thompson (an excellent DG, by most accounts) will be horribly exposed. And while to lose one DG was ...

Fortunately, governance debacles, whether at the BBC or at Oxford University, don't seem to damage the organisation's output, at least in the short term. No doubt the Ten O'Clock News will continue to appear. But I will leave others to verify this over the next 12 months: as chair of the Man Booker Prize judges and with more than a hundred novels to read, I'll have to insist that even the wireless stays silent in the Davies household in 2007.

I shan't miss it much, if the truth be known. Of course, The Archers will remain on intravenous feed: I couldn't live without Clarrie and Eddie. But I'll miss other books. No more fat biographies for me while I'm on a pure diet of fiction. So I was pleased that the last one I will have time for for a while was David Cannadine's Andrew Mellon. This was published late last year and missed all the Christmas book-lists. I hereby add it to the pile.

You can tell yourself that in reading it you are learning how to get seriously rich, but it's really a compelling tale of sex, divorce and shady dealing in the art world, the activity carried on while Mellon was Secretary to the US Treasury. After Roosevelt's election, the Democrats prosecuted him (ultimately unsuccessfully) for tax avoidance, but he still called on FDR to hand over his huge art collection as the core of the National Gallery in Washington.

Since he didn't put his name on the gallery, the scale of Mellon's collection - larger than Frick's or Getty's - is less well appreciated. As with Grade, there were many better offers, but he did what he had promised. How old-fashioned. How Grade would laugh if he knew of such foolish selflessness.

And finally ... The world's securities regulators held their big annual bash in London before Christmas. It's not normally a racy affair, but this year a raffish tone was set by the two opening speakers: Christopher Cox of the SEC, and Britain's own Ed Balls. Who says regulators don't have a sense of humour? - Howard Davies is the director of the London School of Economics.

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