The Big Questions: Were German authorities wrong to hide the discovery of art looted by the Nazis?

This week's questions answered by chair of the Scott Trust Liz Forgan

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Were the German authorities wrong to hide the discovery of art masterpieces that we’ve heard about this week?

Certainly, no one has produced a convincing justification for keeping this amazing discovery a secret. Thickets of questions need answering. Are the works genuine? Are they legitimately in the custody of Mr Gurlitt? How did they come there? Through whose hands have they passed since last seen? To whom to they legally belong? It is hard to see how secrecy could help with any of them. If I were claiming to be the rightful owner of any of this art, I would be hopping mad at being kept in the dark. But then the art market has its murky little alleyways, so we may be in for some unexpected twists to this unfolding story for years to come.

Our spy chiefs said this week that they don’t undermine freedom, they defend it. Is revealing the extent of state surveillance wrong?

Public understanding of – and consent to – the powers we grant to our security services in exchange for our safety are essential in a free society. That does not mean no secrets, but it does mean that those responsible for oversight must have the technical knowledge and the access to do their job. When even the most senior figures in governments across the world are now saying “we had no idea”, it’s time for radical review. The Guardian, for which I work, has taken advice from official channels all along the way and has published stories based on a minute fraction, less than 1 per cent, of the documents released by Edward Snowden (to which, by the way, 850,000 people had regular access). Is anyone seriously suggesting that it would have been right to suppress the knowledge that technology had completely redefined the very word surveillance and that the law and oversight measures were stranded helplessly on a different planet?

Michael Gove was accused this week of “cleansing the curriculum” by emphasising facts and learning by rote. What is your view?

Michael Gove is my despair. His energy, idealism, passion for rigour and commitment to raising educational standards are inspiring. So why does he turn them into a parody of some Victorian Gradgrind when he starts writing curriculums himself, alienating every teacher in the land and wrecking the framework of genuine local democracy around the state school system?

In a speech you gave on leaving the Arts Council at the start of the year, you said “politicians were bad at culture”. What did you mean and has your view changed?

It is true that very few of them seem to have any interest in culture. That’s unfortunate but not a sin. But I was shocked to see almost no members of either front bench at the National Theatre’s 50th birthday celebration last week. A scintillating parade of world-class acting, writing and directing all gathered on our national stage and no phalanx of our political leaders to pay tribute to one of Britain’s glories. Shocking. But I would even forgive this lack of interest if politicians would then embrace the excellent arm’s length principle and, having made their strategic priorities clear, leave the field to people who do occasionally go to a theatre, gallery or arts centre. Alas, irrespective of party, they can’t resist grabbing reflected glory, denouncing art they don’t like and nudging bits of money towards their constituencies. That’s politics, not culture.

Where do you stand on the royal charter on the press, and is the newspaper industry’s resistance to it futile?

We are so nearly there that it will be disgraceful if press, politicians and public can’t devise a trusted, independent framework for establishing proper standards in a free press. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the editors’ code. The remaining issue is how independent is the panel which applies it. You can scare everyone to bits with the threat of million-pound fines but if the tribunal hearing complaints is not genuinely independent of the commercial interests of the media owners, even the most draconian penalties are meaningless. So please, no royal charter which sticks political fingers into places they don’t belong. A genuinely independent (that is, no industry majority) tribunal. And could we please incorporate the first amendment to the American constitution while we are at it?

Should a woman in a burka be required to remove it if she appears in court?

Yes.

How do you feel about the ubiquity of poppy-wearing among our TV presenters?

The BBC has an institutional role in a ceremony of national remembrance so I can see a case for all newsreaders to wear poppies. After that it starts to look as if orders have been given from Head of Dress and Decorum and some of the meaning seems to leach away.

The Tories are once again threatening the BBC with cutting the licence fee. Is this a battle that is never going to go away?

This battle will indeed last as long as the licence fee. It is certainly not unreasonable for charter renewal to be a time for holding the BBC to account for its performance. The trouble is that MPs of all stripes use it as a baseball bat to bully the BBC into editorial compliance with their interests. Not the same thing. But the licence fee is a huge whack of money and the BBC is a robust and much-loved institution. It is the job of the BBC Trust and the Director-General to defend its independence above all things and they are entirely capable of doing so.

Dame Elizabeth Forgan is chair of the Scott Trust, and a former chair of the Arts Council

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