Parliament: The Sketch: A functionary who should stand with Falstaff and Micawber

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The Independent Online
GERALD KAUFMAN should have been a fictional character. As a real person, his life has not been dull or without achievement; he has written a shrewd and witty book offering guidance to new ministers; he has served in cabinet; he has enjoyed excursions into his chosen hinterlands of film and showbusiness. But top-billing has always eluded him. Indeed, it's arguable that the Chairmanship of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sports represents the pinnacle of his career - not so much because it is a hotly sought-after position but because it allows his particular qualities to blossom most floridly.

Just imagine, though, what he could have done had he been an invention. Mr Kaufman would not simply have served in one of literature's supporting roles - those unmemorable but necessary functionaries who help to keep the plot rolling - he would have been proverbial. And that would have granted him an immortality that no amount of diligent public duty will achieve. In the fullness of time, Mr Kaufman will be a footnote in political history - which is a great deal more than most of us achieve. But if a novelist had created him he would surely have become an enduring type. He would have numbered among the Widmerpools, the Falstaffs and the Micawbers - literary inventions that so crisply define certain characteristics that they become conversational shorthand. "He's a bit of a Kaufman," people would be able say, and their audience would immediately understand what they meant: a combination of genuine abilities with a sense of self- esteem so sleek that it makes you ache to tip the person in question into a litter bin. And the purest form of this Kaufman is to be found in committee.

He was on good form yesterday since Sir John Birt and Sir Christopher Bland were giving evidence on the funding of the BBC. They want an extra digital licence, to pay for the BBC's expansion into new forms of broadcasting and to give their corporation "buoyancy", as Sir Christopher put it, in a time of great change. Mr Kaufman doesn't think they should have it, and so was at pains to demonstrate how illogical their request is. Sir Christopher and Sir John probably knew what they were in for, and had armoured themselves with composure; despite Mr Kaufman's steady chafing, tempers never quite frayed.

Inexperienced witnesses often turn up expecting the committee to be a blank slate on which they can inscribe their particular expertise. In truth, it is more like a brick wall splashed with graffiti shouting the opinions of its members. This can be very useful - brick is an abrasive substance and if anything needs a bit of a scrape it is the consultancy- speak of the modern BBC. But when witnesses speak plainly - as Sir Christopher did - the unyielding nature of committee members begins to look less like gritty resistance and more like obstinacy.

Even Mr Kaufman's forensic manner - which requires the slow and painstaking repetition of the established facts - began to sound a bit stupefied during a long exchange in which he sardonically contrasted the 1.8 million people "paying willingly" for commercial digital channels with the less than 10,000 people who received BBC digital by other means. "Chairman, it's a false antithesis", said Sir Christopher recklessly. It doesn't do to challenge Mr Kaufman's grasp of logic, not if you want to get out before lunch. "You're advancing two hypotheses", Mr Kaufman countered at once. The temperature began to rise perceptibly; if it went on like this they would be hurling predicates and syllogisms at each other without restraint. Fortunately Mr Kaufman called a brief interlude - even a man as delighted with his own company as this needs to stretch his legs from time to time.