Philip Hensher: We have a right to know BBC salaries

If you work for the BBC, you are, like a lottery winner, allowed to tick the "no publicity" box
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The Independent Online

The other day, a British person won £56m in the EuroMillions lottery. It could have been even more – the gigantic jackpot of £112m was halved between two winners, one in this country, one elsewhere. Even so – 56 million quid! What you could buy with that – a great big house in Holland Park, a yacht, a small island, a Giacometti.

No, hang on, Giacomettis go for a bit more than that these days. Anyway, you could certainly sit around wondering how you would spend that sort of money, and probably the imaginative life of quite large parts of the country was spent in that very exercise for the few days before the big draw.

Things have certainly changed. John Major's government introduced the national lottery in 1994, brilliantly imposing a voluntary tax on idiots and spending the financial results on good causes. Before then, the most anyone could dream of winning was a million or two on the football pools.

Nowadays, there seems no plausible upper limit to the financial fantasies supplied by a lucky run of numbers.

Choosing to dream of £112m rather than £2,924,622 – the highest recorded pools win – may seem entirely arbitrary and harmless. I mean, you're not going to win either of them. But when you look around, some kind of subtly corrupting influence of these fantastic numbers seems to be filtering into more important areas of life.

A Mr James Simons, an American financier, was last year paid $2.5bn (£1.6bn). His nearest rival, a Mr John Paulson, earnt $2bn (£1.27bn). Absurd sums, and meaningless. What would they do with it? Force up the prices of Giacomettis, no doubt. The total lack of relationship between need, even of the most opulent lifestyles, and reward; of merit, above all, and payment; this is what is most conspicuous in these sums. And in turn, the imaginative power of these sums exerts a force on weaker imaginations. Last week, the BBC was forced to reveal, in general terms, what it pays its executives. A total of 382 of them earn more than £100,000 a year, up to £664,000. The "talent", of course, can be paid very much more. There is a £54m pot which is believed to be shared by fewer than 100 presenters and BBC stars.

Fantasy money. These figures are not fuelled by market demands – the BBC constitutes most of the market in any case. They are driven upwards by absurd fantasies of money given in exchange for very little or nothing at all. The dream of the big sum is perhaps the single change in desire in national life in the last decades. Once, if you were a BBC producer, or a chap playing the pools, or a civil servant, or even a banker, your dreams of money could float pleasantly upwards before hitting a fairly natural ceiling. But not any more.

And if you work for the BBC, you are, like a lottery winner, allowed to tick the "no publicity" box. The BBC is permitted to take public money to throw it at Mr Chris Moyles and any number of BBC Vision Commissioners and Operations Group Heads of Department without further detail. Last week, they were still insisting that they didn't have to tell anyone what they were doing with public money, and large parts of their obscene salary deals are deliberately swathed in obscurity (although they say this is to protect the privacy of the individuals concerned).

Win the lottery, and you can spend your millions in secret, in any number of reprehensible ways. The BBC can't be run like that; the ways in which it spends our money are ways we are entitled to be told about. If the randomly selected lucky winners don't like it, they can always go and work for a commercial organisation and answer to their shareholders.

Customers made too much of a meal out of El Bulli

El Bulli is closing down! Under the gigantic weight of booking inquiries, the world's most famous restaurant has buckled and announced its closure. The Spanish nerve centre of Molecular Gastronomy, the progenitor of fish-flavoured cappuccinos and puddings in the form of gases just couldn't keep up with the numbers. Amazingly, considering the limitless demand for seats at any price, it didn't even make a profit. It will be reopening in due course, still under Ferran Adria, as a cultural foundation of some sort.

I wonder about these temples to the 42-course menu gastronomique. I would have loved to eat at El Bulli just the once. But previous experiences at these sort of places were of delicious, extraordinary food which we discussed ceaselessly – nobody is ever going to say: "Going anywhere nice this year?" when a beet ribbon or a rose-scented mozzarella is placed in front of them. And the result is always a weird echoic effect, as you hear the table that arrived half an hour after you repeating, sometimes word for word, the comments and conversation you were having 30 minutes ago.

The effects of El Bulli are everywhere, as, anywhere, anything from a fishcake to a comedy burger starts to be served up with a foam like cuckoo spit on it. I'm sorry I missed it. But one knows what it would have been like as a social occasion, really.

Repentance is best done by yourself, alone

Gerry Adams is being sent off by Channel 4 to make a documentary about Jesus Christ. The President of Sinn Fein is going round the Holy Land, followed by a camera, musing about Jesus's message of love and his own past. "Sometimes I was in tune with the Jesus message and sometimes not," he says. "I do know that after decades of war, we all have plenty to forgive and be forgiven for." Yes, well, some of us more than others, I dare say.

Never presume to think you know the whole truth about any human heart. Perhaps Adams's regret for what he and his associates have done in the past is perfectly sincere, and we have all agreed to overlook past misdeeds for political reasons, have we not? Still, I don't think we want to listen to someone of his sort going on about Jesus, and love, and forgiveness.

It is perfectly possible to be happy that someone regrets his sectarian past, and wants to make amends for it by thinking about the message of love which lay deeply hidden in the origins of that sect. Has he, however, considered doing it in private, away from the glare of publicity and not funded by Channel 4? I believe that acts of contrition are just as effective whether carried out on television or not.