Missing: one Peter Jay, presumed too busy to appear on television on behalf of the BBC

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The Independent Online

He was once thought the cleverest man in Britain and tipped by Time magazine as a future world leader. He has held one of the most important titles in journalism for the past 10 years.

Why, then, did Peter Jay, economics editor of the BBC, need a tutorial from a colleague last weekend before he was able to face the cameras for the Budget?

There is no shortage of answers at Television Centre, where Mr Jay has proved as popular with many of his colleagues as the departed director-general Sir John Birt.

Observers noted that until Tuesday's appearance for the Budget, he had been scarcely seen on screen for most of the past year. Critics snipe that he is so rarely in attendance that his office is regularly used by colleagues who cycle to work to change when they arrive.

Which may well account for the appearance of fellow economics expert Chris Giles at his Oxfordshire farmhouse last weekend for a thorough pre-Budget briefing. But it was David Dimbleby and Peter Snow who anchored the afternoon's coverage, with Mr Jay, 63, taking a minor role. Even more surprisingly, the economics editor made no appearance on Newsnight, still the BBC's most respected news programme.

Yet his contract has recently been renewed for the year for a sum thought to exceed £100,000 and which may be as much as £160,000, according to BBC insiders.

A BBC spokesman pointed to his work on a forthcoming series on the history of economic progress to explain Mr Jay's absences. Development and production had taken up much of the past 18 months or more. "It's not unusual for that type of project to take that length of time," he said. "We're very happy with Peter Jay. He's working on a very fine series."

The six-part series, entitled Road to Riches, is due for broadcast in the summer and will be accompanied by a book, subtitled The Wealth of Man.

Yet the BBC even lost out on the bidding for that. Weidenfeld and Nicolson won and will publish the £20 tome in May, prompting one observer to note that Mr Jay had taken its title to heart.

"He did a piece on Budget day, but before that he hadn't been on television at all for nearly a year," according to one former colleague. "He's paid a ridiculous sum of money by the BBC and he just never does anything. All the other economics correspondents are dismayed. If you look at the political editor and the foreign affairs editor of the BBC, they're everywhere. But it's said that Jay never moves from Oxfordshire."

Despite his high-minded advocacy, with Sir John Birt, of TV as an educative medium, colleagues complain that he is far from being a man of the people. When he sits on interview boards for business posts, insiders claim he is dismissive of anyone without a first-class degree from Oxford or Cambridge. He himself has a first in politics, philosophy and economics (PPE), the classic politician's degree, from Christ Church, Oxford.

Nevertheless, the global history of mankind's economic progress is at least the kind of project the BBC can point to as evidence of maintaining standards. Intended as a guide for a lay readership, the series - and book - tells the story of global economic patterns, including the industrial revolution and the rise and fall of key economies in Europe, the Americas and Asia.

Last night Mr Jay was in New York and was unavailable for comment.