The love of money has corrupted our idea of public service

What happened to the idea that a job could be ill-paid but still satisfying?

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Imagine for a moment that you are a senior executive in a publicly-owned organisation. You have a tough job and are acceptably paid for what you do to the tune of £267,000 a year. During a business trip abroad, you buy a soft drink for £3.15. Do you a) decide that you can afford it and that to keep the receipt and claim for it is a waste of everyone’s time: or b) put it on expenses?

Now you have another job in the same corporation. You are a senior manager on a salary of almost £208,000, and yet you have always had a niggling personal ambition to set up your own cafe business. Do you a) decide that one job is quite enough, or b) multitask, and do both.

Your final job is one of huge responsibility: you are in charge of the organisation’s creative output. You are paid £183,000 and, being over 65, you have access to a pension pot of around £2.8m. One of the projects commissioned by your department is actually produced and presented by yourself in a personal capacity. Do you a) decide that, since all three sources of income come from the public purse, you should be open about what your are paid for the third job, or b) argue professional confidentiality and keep your head down?

Most sane and intelligent readers of this newspaper would, we can assume, tick the a) box in each of these cases. Yet a significant number of sane and intelligent BBC managers – these three examples, John Tate, Lisa Opie and Alan Yentob, were part of a wider pattern – cheerfully opted for b) and followed the course of mild self-interest.

The behaviour of individual managers is rather more revealing than the bigger picture. After all, we have known for some time that a deadly virus of morally blinkered greed had entered the senior echelons of the BBC – it is no longer even a surprise to hear a former director-general explain with a straight face that a senior executive needed an extra £500,000 in his pay-off so that he would remain “focused” in his final months.

Claims for expenses, moonlighting with a second job and failing to declare remuneration are different. Each represents a personal, private decision.

Something peculiar has happened to the attitudes of those in public life towards money. Until quite recently, it was understood, if rarely articulated, that if you were fortunate enough to have an interesting, powerful job in a sector which did not generate huge profits, you would be less well-paid than someone in the drearier, more lucrative private sector.

Doctors, broadcasters, politicians, booksellers and teachers made choices which reflected both a personal preference and a small degree of morality. Today, there are millions of people who have made a similar decision: writers, painters, designers, or those working for charities, arts centres, citizen radio, online groups. They have concluded, rightly, that a satisfying job, even if it is ill-paid, will bring more fulfilment than a larger salary, miserably gained.

For all the rows surrounding their expenses, MPs have followed that model, and are now paid less than the head teacher of comprehensive, and at the low end of what a BBC editor or producer earns.

Yet for others, public service should now be rewarded at private rates. Away from depressing stories about the BBC, The Sunday Times reported that some senior doctors are claiming more that £150,000 a year for overtime in addition to their generous salaries. Senior executives on local councils behave similarly.

It is more than a question of morality. Those in public life who keep one beady eye on their own personal rewards and advantage are unlikely to be doing their job well. The problem is not, to borrow Michael Grade’s phrase, that they lack an understanding of the value of money but that they have lost sight of values which are altogether more important.

Why didn’t the actor cross the road? 

The autobiography of Derek Jacobi, As Luck Would Have It, sounds like a treat for lovers of theatrical memoirs. It includes the slightly surprising revelation that its author was on a shortlist of three for the part of Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. The other two contenders were Anthony Hopkins and Daniel Day-Lewis, confirming the suspicion that Hollywood producers prefer their nutters and villains to be British.

The full terror of stage fright is also explored at some length. When Jacobi found himself unable to appear on stage for three years, he discovered that the same thing frequently happened to successful actors in the middle of their careers. Day-Lewis, playing Hamlet at the National, walked off the stage when he thought he had seen the ghost of his own father. Laurence Olivier suffered panic attacks and, when playing Shylock, asked Jacobi not to stare at him on stage for fear of bringing on a turn. Jacobi’s own symptoms extended beyond the theatre. At its worst, he claims, he was too terrified to cross a road.