Opinion: Talking heads quickly lose their novelty

Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Support

It's one o'clock in the morning and I'm sitting in a radio studio at White City, known to those who work there, not wholly affectionately, as WC. The interviewer is a disembodied voice from Manchester and the subject is insurance. Sometimes it's daunting to be the 'expert' at short notice, however good the briefing. There's a new policy for people who want to secure an income in case they develop cancer. Certain cancers are excluded. If you have a family history of cancer you'll pay a much bigger premium or could be refused. You will certainly be refused if you're 70, which is the age at which cancer becomes common.

I make the point that insurance is only a form of gambling, in which the odds are set by the company, - and that, as with every other kind of gambling, the house always wins. The company spokesman responds grumpily that he sees this as a service to people worried about cancer. I agree it's good these products are on offer, but a pity they aren't available at an affordable price to those most likely to need them.

Contrast this with the benefits system, I say, in which the odds are distributed across the entire at-risk population and the cost is distributed across the whole tax-paying population. If only it was as easy to get the benefits to which you're entitled. In the studio I have a copy of the Attendance Allowance form I helped my father complete before he died - 32 pages of it. Without help, he would have wanted to tell the Department for Work and Pensions about the things he could do, instead of those he couldn't; to assert his independence, not his loss of autonomy.

Living in the middle of London can be a double-edged sword. It's a ten-minute walk to the office, but at weekends and evenings you're always around when broadcasters want a live interviewee. The risk is that you become a talking head, ready to sound off about anything remotely connected with your business, but you start to lose your novelty to audience and broadcasters. At one time I thought any crumb of publicity had to be seized upon. Now I don't go and talk about every new drug because the question is always the same - everyone should have such and such regardless of cost and benefit. I won't slag off health service workers, another cheap target, because they can never satisfy the grumbling middle classes. And I'll do anything to avoid going to Osterley, a two-hour round trip to an industrial desert, for two minutes of airtime.

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