Diary - Anna Ford
I attended Bill Bryson's installation as chancellor of Durham. He said chancellors were a bit like b
Christopher Meyer, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission and ex-ambassador to Washington, has himself been making headlines as a result of his gossipy memoirs. So I was interested to meet him at a lunch where he was asked to explain to a gathering of barristers, solicitors, journalists and an MP how the PCC was updating its code of conduct.
I don't have much faith in the powers of the PCC to control the excesses of the press, and I'd intended to ask him why he thought a diplomat would have the skills necessary to do so. However, given that he'd proved himself to be breathtakingly undiplomatic, I thought I'd ask instead why, if a libel or untruth was published on the front page of a newspaper, it was still considered fair to publish a retraction on a page deep inside? Conscious of the necessity for change, he admitted it was proving difficult to persuade the press to co-operate. This despite the tightened-up and improved code he has worked hard to introduce.
I also asked him to give a recent example or two of papers deemed by the PCC to have contravened their own code, and what action had been taken against them. He was, after some head-scratching and a rather desperate appeal for help from the guests, unable to come up with a single example.
A generous interpretation of Meyer's memoirs might be that they give us a useful insight into the world of international politicking, so often obscured by political aides. But arriving at a lunch planned months in advance to extol the virtues of the new PCC code, and not having to hand one example of how the newspapers are being controlled, doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in his chairmanship.
I've enjoyed going to lectures at the Royal Geographical Society for some years, and it's gratifying to see how popular they've become. There was a packed house for Tom Fremantle's talk on the travels of the explorer Mungo Park, who particularly interests me as his sister Jane Park was, I believe, my great-great-great-great grandmother. I've always hoped that at least a smidgen of his genes have been passed on, and may account for my wanderlust. Park's account of his journeys to West Africa in 1795 and 1805 make a gripping tale of tribal life, local justice and the slave trade. He died while attempting to chart the course of the Niger River, but exhibited great courage and formed deep friendships with those he met on the way.
I'm taking my children to the Unicorn Theatre this Christmas, and although they're both grown up, we're looking forward to the staging of one of our favourite books, Tom's Midnight Garden. For those who dread celebrity-focused pantomimes full of stale innuendo, the Unicorn is a breath of fresh air. On 1 December Dickie Attenborough opened their fantastic new theatre, between London Bridge and Tower Bridge. It's the UK's first purpose-built professional theatre for children, with shows that "will rise to the challenge of a child's imagination". There's a fantastic selection of art and educational programmes for children, parents and teachers, and all available to more than 100,000 children each year, many from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I attended Bill Bryson's installation as chancellor of Durham University, a wonderful ceremony in a beautiful cathedral. He said he thought chancellors were a little like bidets - everybody wanted one, but nobody knew quite what they were for. Having been chancellor of my old university, Manchester, for the past few years, I think I'm there to heap praise where it's due, and after a successful merger with Umist, Manchester has just been named Higher Education Institution of the Year by the Times Higher Awards.
Yet despite glowing praise for the university, Manchester itself still seems to have an image problem at the BBC, which plans to move some departments up north. When my husband Mark Boxer was alive, George Melly and I used to take great delight in teasing him about the wild lands north of Watford. We invented tribes of people with strange accents, odd clothes and even odder practices, and it's clear Mark's old prejudices still prevail. There are rumours of a special counsellor for those in the BBC who find the prospect menacing.
Let me reassure them. Manchester is booming. As thousands flock to live in elegant new flats in the city centre, and with the proximity of the Lakes and the Peak District, a world-class orchestra and art galleries, and first-class cricket and football, I really don't know what's holding them back.