Editor-At-Large: Age does matter, but only because the young feel so left out

We shouldn't care how old our leaders are, as long as Ming, David and Gordon do something about political disaffection
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The Independent Online

Fighting to impose his authority on his party at the end of their annual conference last week, Ming Campbell confronted the age issue head on by asserting that his 66 years make him a better leader than David Cameron (40) or Gordon Brown (56). Utter bilge – Ming's reasoning is as out of date as his jokes.

Although one opinion poll gave the patrician Scot a two-point lead over the Tory toff, does anyone really think that this chap has the charisma to sort out Britain? But age is a big issue and Ming was forced to bring it up because a clutch of so-called "young turks" (all white, middle-aged, middle-class males, by the way) in the Lib Dems have let it be known to anyone who'd listen that they'd like the top job. They might have spent a decade or two less on the planet than Ming, but this doesn't mean that they are more in tune with a younger generation or any more able to resolve the problems society currently faces dealing with people who haven't even got the vote yet.

Politicians are obsessed with age, and by focusing on his seniority, Ming is acknowledging that. Whether he likes it or not, youthfulness is seen as an asset by a lot of people, not least our previous Prime Minister. Which is surprising, given that we have an ageing population, and the first generation of persioners hell bent on making 60 the new 40. (I'm proud to be one of these grey baby boomers.) You'd have thought Ming shouldn't even have to bother discussing age as a possible impediment to doing anything, as his successful contemporaries such as Richard Branson, Terence Conran, Paul Smith and the Rolling Stones would find the concept laughable. Even Clement Freud was talking about sex at 70 on the radio the other day before he was ruthlessly cut short. Some things are best not dwelt on too long.

Given that they make age an issue, it's interesting that politicians of all parties have not really connected with the younger generation, preferring instead to come up with a variety of solutions to what they see as a breakdown in society – all of which seem to identify a large section of our population (mostly those under 21) as a "problem". Drinking, antisocial behaviour, gun and knife crime, gang culture, lack of employability, illiteracy and drug use do blight a disgracefully large number of these people whose energy and passion could be our biggest asset, but we are never going to get anywhere unless we stop identifying them as a special group purely by age.

Whenever the next election is, whether it's next month, next spring or a couple of years away, the biggest issue Ming, David and Gordon have to face is how to get a large disenfranchised, uninterested group of people who have never voted to be part of our democracy. These range from young people who commit petty crime to the new generation that has benefited from university education under new Labour. There are 20-year-olds with massive credit card debts – totally uneducated about money – and school leavers who can't read and write properly.

It doesn't really matter what age a politician is to me – you can be sympathetic to the problems faced by the young at 95 – they have to start the process of reaching out and engaging with this generation that has been left outside politics. For years politicians never really bothered with first-time voters, believing that it took a huge mortgage and a family to get people to the ballot box where self-interest rules. Twenty years down the line, the number of people who feel politics is nothing to do with them is larger than ever before, and the consequences will be disastrous.

How can we have gone from the student protests and political uprisings of the 1960s to torpor and apathy 40 years later? Young people sign up for causes – like the painfully obvious Make Poverty History campaign – but few have any intention of voting. Paradoxically, a new survey shows that it's the over-60s who now behave the way the kids used to do all those years ago, placing having fun and adventure and getting more sex at the top of their wish list.

The BBC should leave George alone

George Michael was right to ask that his contribution to the BBC documentary series 'Stephen Fry: HIV and Me' be cut. Why, then, did the production team reveal its content to the media, ensuring that his right to silence was bypassed? I can understand that having agreed to talk on such a sensitive subject the singer might have second thoughts, especially as the family of his former partner (who died from an Aids-related illness in 1995) might not welcome media intrusion. The programme's producer told us last June that the singer had revealed that he had not taken an Aids test since 2004, because he feared it might be positive, and that Stephen Fry and George had disagreed about this. Frankly, George Michael has been used to promote this project in a rather unappetising way. I love him dearly, but Fry is becoming overexposed. This year we've already had programmes celebrating his birthday and discussing his depression. Is there only one intelligent gay deemed ratings-friendly by the corporation? George has donated millions of pounds to Aids charities and I don't see why he should be pilloried. Sometimes you have to accept that famous people have a right to silence, and you can't bully them into submission. George doesn't seek to be a role model, as he's made abundantly clear in the past.

Cat causes a stir but TV execs still have nine lives

It's not really about cats on kids' telly and whether they are called Pussy, Socks or Felix. I couldn't believe a prestigious radio programme such as Today devoted time to discussing the matter last Friday morning, when they could have been talking at length about Mr Brown's decision not to attend the pan-African-EU summit if President Mugabe pitches up. The cat saga – it is irrelevant what bloody name viewers chose for the animal – neatly sums up the big issue the BBC faces at the moment, apart from trying to find £2bn in savings to balance its books over the coming two years, which is how to regain our trust.

It has suffered a series of blunders, from Queengate to employees rigging phone-ins. Mark Thompson, the director-general, is under a lot of pressure from the trustees to be seen to apportion blame and draw a line under these cock-ups. He's a devout Catholic, but unfortunately, sacking programme producers after they've confessed to a spot of editorial fudging does rather smack of the Inquisition. Once you demand the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about a medium so full of innuendo, subterfuge and double standards as television entertainment programmes, then you'll be kept busy with investigations for years to come.

Best thing would be for several highly paid executives to bite the bullet, and offer themselves as sacrificial victims. So far only one has done so. I don't like seeing lower-paid workers get dismissed; in the end the people at the top have to lead by example, and it's quite obvious that a few at the BBC aren't up to it.

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