What should the next BBC Director General do? And will the Israel/Palestine conflict ever end?

This week's big questions are answered by the novelist and historian Marina Warner


Is the so-called crisis at the BBC being overstated?

It’s a very dangerous time, as the advocates of privatisation see rich pickings here. The crisis is not being overstated, but the initial causes have provided a pretext for a marvellously hypocritical show of outrage, while recent blunders (bafflingly stupid) have also played into the hands of those who see an opportunity to take out the BBC. Everything needs to be done to keep the BBC in public ownership and to continue independent news reporting and political analysis.

What should the next Director-General prioritise?

First we have to have one, and the process of choosing him or her must be less clubby. I like the idea that candidates should present their principles and plans in public, and a full debate should follow before the decision is made. No rush, full disclosure.

In the meantime, a campaign team from among programme makers and journalists (“content-providers”), not managers or administrators, should form to develop a powerful manifesto for independent, publicly funded broadcasting and to look for the next DG or even an alternative structure of leadership.

What, if anything, does the David Petraeus affair tell us about men and power?

The most puzzling aspect of contemporary culture – and it has spread from the US as US cultural trends do – is the clash between pornography and puritanism. Sex is pushed, displayed, sold through the bodies of women, yet to do it is punishable by public disgrace. Regarding men and power, women used to be a perk of office, but now even when they themselves show every sign of wanting to play that part, everybody turns on everyone else to prevent them. I’d reverse the equation and have less public porn and more private sex (or, rather, love – though love is probably not much in play in this story).

Are there too many Etonians running Britain?

Yes, but it’s the kind of Etonians, too. There are others – and I wouldn’t want to name and shame them – who have very different ideas and, even, body language. The education at private schools like Eton gives a clear advantage, but the dominance of its pupils in positions of influence reflects even deeper inequalities that are getting deeper. If Ed Miliband and his team can find a remedy, it’d be as visionary a contribution as Beveridge.

How do you think the law emerges from this week’s Abu Qatada ruling?

As Voltaire said, there’s little virtue in tolerating your like-minded friends. It’s tolerating the intolerable that tests the principle of equality before the law. The judges would certainly have ruled for deportation if they could have. We wage wars in other places in order to bring about the rule of law on which we pride ourselves, so it’s good when we observe it ourselves. Regarding terrorist suspects, a way must be found to charge them here with offences against British law and hear the evidence in open court.

The EU is backing proposals that 40 per cent of company directors be female. Do you agree?

Encouragement works. But it’s important to start earlier, as girls are still pushed to envision their futures narrowly (oh, the ghastliness of teen mags). Michelle Obama is a heroine when she stresses – to young women from poor backgrounds – the satisfactions of high achievement and ambition. Also, it would be interesting to ask for representation on boards of companies to reflect the composition of the workforce; in some cases, that might work out at more than 40 per cent.

Is it appropriate for an MP to go on I’m a Celebrity... Get me Out Of Here!?

Nadine Dorries has revealed the contempt and distaste the establishment has for popular culture, and that says more about the entertainment such shows provide than about the appropriate behaviour of MPs. If bread and circuses are so shameful for her, the rise of gladiatorial, humiliating, grotesque TV comedy needs to be halted. But MPs testing themselves with the kind of work their constituents do is a good idea: a stint as a hospital cleaner? As a Tube driver? An asylum seeker?

Will there ever be a solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict?

Not if political assassination continues to be used. Hague should have deplored this in far stronger terms and should not have declared that Hamas was responsible in the first place. Israeli reprisals have been excessive and illegal for years and their covert nuclear force is a provocation of extreme dangerousness. Netanyahu is now facing elections and needs to be defeated – there are elements in Israel that envisage the future in wiser and more peaceable terms and they should be given every political encouragement and support.

Your new book is about the power of magic in particular, and the imagination in general. What could today’s leaders learn from it?

That Arabic history and culture are complex, and our historical entanglement with them rich and deep. That magical thinking isn’t a feature of ignorant and superstitious others, but endemic in Western structures, too, and isn’t always a dead end, but provides space for thought experiments and new departures. The stories of the Arabian Nights are about a woman under sentence of death enlightening a bloodthirsty tyrant about mercy and justice and telling him to pause and think and then think again. Reading them now, in the midst of the Syrian and other Middle Eastern bloodshed, feels completely contemporary.

Marina Warner’s ‘Stranger Magic’, published by Vintage, is out now in paperback

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