gerkin

I went along to the Treasury select committee in Portcullis House this afternoon to see five of the country’s best known financial journalists take a mild ruffling from John McFall and the boys. From the crowds milling in the corridor beforehand you could tell it was going to be top rate entertainment, and sitting inside were some newspaper A-listers – Quentin Letts doodling on his shorthand pad and Polly Toynbee bagging a seat near the front.

Simon Jenkins of the Guardian, Alex Brummer of the Daily Mail, Robert Peston of the BBC, Lionel Barber of the FT and Jeff Randall of Sky sat in front of the committee like unrepentant sixth formers. The mood swung back and forth from jocular to snappy. Tory MP Michael Fallon fired the first real salvo when he asked Peston whether he had any sources within the Treasury. Peston’s answer sent a ripple of chuckling through the crowd:

You won’t be surprised that the only area I’m uncomfortable talking about in public is sources of any sort. Over the years I’ve benefited from private conversations with a lot of people, including members of this committee. I’ve talked to you, for example.

Fallon pressed on, asking if Peston had his own pass to the Treasury. “I’m perfectly happy to say I have not got a pass to the Treasury,” Peston replied, adding that if Fallon liked he could ask the Treasury how often he was there, somewhere in the region of twice a year by his guess.

jenkins

Among predictable exchanges – did the witnesses feel responsible for precipitating the run on Northern Rock, no they didn’t – Simon Jenkins sounded the most controversial note.

He suggested the government leaked bad news about ailing banks to journalists like Peston before buying up the shares at a cheaper price a few days later.

I think the government has that level of competence. There was a massive interest to the taxpayer to make these shares cheaper. It would be almost weird for the government not to have done it, but how much the journalists involved knew about it I don’t know.

For the record, Peston and others rejected the idea. The talk dwindled as the session wore on, before at the end John McFall cheerily plugged Alex Brummer’s book, Crunched.

In a week dominated by the Sachsgate affair, it’s no surprise the Sunday papers have taken a look at the BBC through a critical lens.

This morning the BBC’s director-general Mark Thompson told The Andrew Marr Show Jonathan Ross would be keeping his job, although he described his three-month suspension as a “final warning”. Thompson went on to defend his £816,000 annual salary:

I get paid significantly less than my opposite numbers in ITV and Channel 4. I took a pay cut. People are happy to do that because of the creative challenges.

No doubt he had in mind the News of the World’s splash when he said that. The NotW used a simple Freedom of Information request to get details of the BBC’s top 50 salaries – all of whom earn more than Gordon Brown’s relatively modest £190,000 a year.

The story’s strapline on page 4 sums up the paper’s thrust: “For £14.3m [the aggregate of the salaries] we could employ 677 nurses, 695 teachers, 540 firemen or 596 coppers.. but what DO we get? 50 money-grabbing BBC fat cats!”

The Sunday Times had the same table of stats showing the Corporation’s top earners but didn’t deem it as newsworthy, stashing it away on page 13 as part of a double page spread on the fallout from Sachsgate. Instead the paper led in with comments from a source close to Cabinet minister Andy Burnham suggesting the BBC should “tackle its salary culture”.

The Daily Telegraph quoted a senior Tory source saying the Conservatives would force the Beeb to cuts its licence fee by £6, effectively returning £800 million to viewers in a year. The source tells The Telegraph the Tories would “rein in the overweening ambitions of the BBC” which, in spending huge amounts of money on the likes of Ross, was “acting as if it were Manchester United buying Ronaldo”.

Zeituni Onyango

On the other side of the Atlantic, a real auntie has been giving Barack Obama an unwelcome distraction.

According to The New York Times, Obama had no idea the 56-year-old Kenyan relative he affectionately referred to as “Auntie Zeituni” in his memoir was living with illegal immigant status in Boston.

She made small donations to his campaign amounting to $260 which David Axelrod has said will be refunded.

In today’s Observer, Paul Harris and Gabby Hinsliff remark: “Illegal immigration is a political minefield in US politics and the story could be a vote-losing headache for Obama.”

With a matter of days to go until America’s next president is sworn in, all indicators are pointing to an Obama victory. Like Tony Blair in 1997, he is playing this down. Several commentators have hoped this won’t result in an overly cautious first term as it did for New Labour.

On another note, Andrew Rawnsley thinks David Cameron is quietly keeping his fingers crossed for a Democrat win.

Finally, in today’s Telegraph, Philip Sherwell and Tim Shipman report that if elected Obama will face an early test from Islamic terrorists, who have threatened to test the new president’s mettle. There is a great piece in this quarter’s Granta Magazine that ties in with the ongoing threat from within presented by extremists. Unfortunately you can’t get it online but I’m planning a longer blog piece with some of the higlights.