The Tayyip Erdogan-Shimon Peres rumble last night was partly about Gaza. But it was also about the limitations of panel moderation at Davos. I don’t mean to single out David Ignatius, whose failure to keep Israeli President Peres from vastly exceeding his allotted time apparently incensed the Turkish prime minister. I had been at another panel Thursday morning where Peres rambled on and on, ignoring several polite nudges from moderator Maria Ramos, a South African CEO. The prominence and self-importance of many of the speakers here, coupled with a certain cultural sensitivity to behaving in ways that people from other countries might find obnoxious, seems to keep moderators from exercising the discipline often needed to make discussions work.
So it was refreshing this afternoon to watch the BBC’s Nik Gowing make no attempt to avoid obnoxiousness in a made-for-TV discussion about financial crisis and regulation. He was especially tough on Jacob Frenkel, the former University of Chicago economist and Israeli central bank chief who for the past few years has possessed the (now somewhat embarrassing) title of vice chairman of AIG.
In past years—especially last year—Frenkel was Davos’s designated optimist. By now he has acceded to reality, essentially conceding today that everything his fellow panelist and former intellectual antagonist Nouriel Roubini said was right. But when Gowing asked him about his culpability for AIG’s colossal wipeout, Frenkel initially avoided the question by saying there had been a systemic collapse in which AIG had been caught up. In a disbelieving voice, Gowing kept pressing him, finally leading to this exchange:
Gowing: So there’s no personal responsibility?
Frenkel: At least as far as I’m concerned, there isn’t.
Later, Frenkel explained that, despite his fancy title, he’s not actually on AIG’s board. (He didn’t say this, but I think he was basically hired to represent the firm at events like Davos.) It was sporting of him to even show up, I guess—I didn’t see anybody else from a bailed-out financial firm on hand—and even more sporting to submit to Gowing’s interrogation. But Davos could definitely use a bit more of Gowing’s attitude this year.