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Welcome to the Age of Insolvency

I’m writing this diary for sentimental reasons. Both my father, Paul Johnson, and my godfather, Tony Howard, were editors of the New Statesman when I was young. So I feel a curious attachment to the magazine, even though I'm bound to disagree with most of its contents.

On Monday evening I go to my cousin Crispin's house for supper. It was a particularly upsetting meal, because I realised that of the three males there I was the only one who hadn't been a pop star once upon a time. After the roast chicken I was forced to watch their music videos from the Eighties and Nineties on YouTube. Luckily, their wives were also present, so they were unable to regale me with tales of the groupies and other high jinks I never experienced. It seems very unfair that, while they were having fun, I had a misspent youth as a struggling entrepreneur. Come to that, I'm still a struggling entrepreneur right now, just on a slightly bigger scale.

I am grilled by a Commons select committee on Tuesday morning about Channel 4's annual report. Secretly, I think most of the MPs concerned are great supporters of our output, from our nightly 7pm hour of news to our dramas and documentaries such as Dispatches. They understand that we can take risks and experiment in ways the BBC never can and that plurality of public service television is vital for our culture and our creative industries. But, inevitably, the politicians feel they should have a go at the obvious stuff, like fat cat salaries. So it falls to me to defend those, even though I receive a fairly modest £73,000. When appointed I even offered to waive that, but Lord Currie, chairman of Ofcom, thought it would be inappropriate. But I don't bother claiming expenses, which of course allows me to occupy the moral high ground when signing them off for other people. I had a recent difficult meeting over a business I part own, where a director has been claiming for things like his son's mobile phone bills and petrol for his boat in Spain. Somehow, this sort of stuff always bubbles to the surface when times get tough; in a boom, no one seems to notice. We come to a settlement and move on, hoping lessons have been learned.

On Wednesday I give a speech entitled "How to Survive an Economic Downturn" at a recruitment industry conference. I put on a metaphorical mask and attempt to turn cheerleader. Some in the audience appear to think I might have a magic formula - but what do I know? We are all in a fog, stumbling around, hoping for the best, despite all the horrible evidence. At least I write my own stuff for these occasions, so I know what I am capable of delivering without coming across as a complete phony. I state the obvious: cut costs, try harder, generate cash, repay debts and so forth. All straightforward in theory - but, as ever, execution is what matters.

Later I drop in at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, where I am the chairman-elect. It is a splendid and unique institution, being revived by a youthful team led by the energetic Matthew Taylor. It has a terrific series of free lectures in its handsome premises off the Strand, and various important research projects under way, as well as 27,000 fellows. Now, it just needs to make more noise and have more impact. I hope to help it "to embolden enterprise", one of its founding aims in 1754. Given the backlash that is brewing against capitalism and finance, enterprise is going to need to be bold in the coming years. Britain must encourage and motivate its entrepreneurs if new jobs are to be created to replace the millions about to be shed, because nothing matters more for a civilised society than people having good jobs.

By Friday evening I return home from my office in Bloomsbury in a sombre mood. Almost every company I know is slashing costs, cutting the headcount, and planning for a truly gruesome 2009. The private sector feels like a war zone right now. I hope the legions of New Statesmen readers working for the state feel suitably grateful that they are insulated from the rounds of redundancies. Our generation got used to doing better every year, but now we shall have to adjust to the idea of simple preservation as a real achievement. The Age of Prosperity has been superseded by the Age of Austerity - or possibly the Age of Insolvency. Board meetings have gone from talk of expansion to talk of survival. It is hard to keep morale up in such a shitstorm.

Luckily on Sunday it is my son Felix's second birthday party, with half a dozen small guests. We give him a marvellous cake from our Patisserie Valerie chain, and everyone has a boisterous time. Suddenly the priorities are clear, and thoughts of credit crunches evaporate among balloons, high-spirited squeals and chocolate-covered little faces.

Luke Johnson is chairman of Channel 4 and Risk Capital Partners, a private equity firm

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Change has come