Nearly there Andrew Neil, but we need to nationalise education not restore grammar schools

It is probably safe to say that most people who visit this website are not huge fans of Andrew Neil. Through his documentary on class and politics however, broadcast last night by the BBC, Neil surely went some way to redeeming himself in the eyes of the left. He might just be a working-class hero after all, an ‘oh dear’ whose time has finally come. Alas, he dropped the ball at the very end, by concluding that the solution to inequality in the distribution of power in British society is a return to grammar school education.

The stats on the dominance of the privately-educated in politics are startling. Half the Cabinet went to fee-paying schools, as did a third of MPs, compared to 7% of the population. This may be partly a function of Labour’s defeat and a higher number of Tory MPs. But the privately-educated are over-represented by 400% in the Shadow Cabinet, and Neil claimed that only 6 of Labour’s 60 new MPs are from a working-class background. And this is just politics; obviously the situation is far more pronounced at the commanding heights of the economy.

My belief is that our culture is becoming increasingly hostile to the working-class. The ubiquity of the highly offensive word ‘chav’ demonstrates this – especially given its use on twitter by a Labour parliamentary candidate. It is political correctness gone bye-bye. More generally, I am increasingly hearing otherwise well-meaning, middle-class, do-gooders in my workplace saying increasingly snobby things. Times are harder so they are closing ranks.

Neill’s solution is appalling. He thinks it is perfectly acceptable for public and private school pupils to be given huge advantages in their career, no matter how intelligent they are. But only the cream of the working-class is to be allowed similar advantages. He says we can achieve this with greater flexibility and sophistication than the days of the dreaded 11-plus. It is okay, so the argument goes, if some people get a very good education, as long as everyone gets a quite good education. This is what Neil doesn’t get: it is not about the absolute standards in different educational sectors, it is the relative standards between the sectors. Only a certain number of people can become politicians, lawyers, captains of industry, etc. – they will be the ones who went to the best schools, no matter how good the rest are.

We need a far more radical solution. Sunder Katwala has called for higher taxes on private education, which would be a start – but not an end. What we actually need is the effective nationalisation of education. I am not talking about a ban on private education (it is a free country, after all), just a full withdrawal of taxpayer support. We could, for instance

a) Prevent publicly-funded exam boards from accrediting non-state schools

b) Place much tougher conditions on individuals undertaking teacher training, at our expense, regarding where they can work

c) Withdraw public money from universities that admit students with qualifications not obtained from state schools

There would of course be caveats to all of these rules for exceptional circumstances. It is also likely that many rich people would find a way around the restrictions, by underhand means or by blatantly setting up private enclaves outside the mainstream education system, such as private universities. But it is also likely that the value of a truly comprehensive system – which as lefties we believe in as an article of faith – will come to be recognised eventually, and within a generation or so normative and cultural change will produce near-full compliance.

No segment of society has the right to pass on their good fortune to segments of future generations. All parents do of course have the right, and duty, to give their children every advantage they possibly can. But society has the collective right and duty not to fund and support any system that demonstrably breeds inequality, prejudice and social disharmony.

Well done Panorama… but shame on you

Last night’s episode of Panorama portrayed high-class investigative journalism, in contrast to much of the programme’s recent output. But its timing was shameful, and a dagger to the heart of journalistic integrity.

The BBC is right to expose corruption within FIFA. Anyone with a stake in professional football has long recognised just how opaquely the beautiful game is governed, and I for one applaud, in theory, the BBC starting to tackle this head-on rather than simply indulging the glamorous side of the game.

I would go as far as saying this: the FA should not have bid for the World Cup. The FA should be leading by example in trying to fix football’s problems, and the UK government should be fully behind such a stance. My feeling is that the government wants the World Cup because it will provide a boost during an expected downturn in popularity halfway through Cameron’s second term in office. In fact I find it quite sickening that the UK Prime Minister has gone to Zurich to beg for favours from a man like Jack Warner.

So what’s the problem? For journalists, it is most important to be right. But it is also crucial to maintain independence. Journalists must also lead by example – or else how can we trust them to tell us the truth about the lies of politicians? This is why we should be concerned about Murdoch’s growing monopolisation of the media. Media organisations will of course always be swayed one way or another by proprietors, editors, individual reporters’ interests, public mood, etc – which is precisely why we need plurality in media output.

It is also why we should be concerned about the decision on when to screen Panorama. The BBC has been holding this back for weeks, waiting for the moment to strike. Shameful. The moment they chose was the moment it would have the greatest political impact (causing harm only to the England bid, which had committed no act of corruption whatsoever). The truth is the truth is the truth. When you know it, speak it. These revelations should have been on BBC news bulletins as soon as the information was discovered (and verified) by the Panorama team – irrespective of political implications.

And once the decision was made to make the report a Panorama exclusive (which may provide an ego boost to Jeremy Vine, but means zero to most TV licence payers), it should have been broadcast at a time which avoided direct political implications. With 3 days before the vote, there was obviously no possibility at all that FIFA would suspend the accused individuals before the World Cup decision was made. So the decision on timing was not made in order to prevent allegedly corrupt politicians from deciding the destiny of the various bids. Instead, it was taken because this is when the bid’s profile in the public consciousness is at its highest, so the journalists who make Panorama will get as much fame as possible for their work. A dagger to the heart of journalistic integrity.

BBC Sport is going North – and London doesn’t like it

In Monday’s Evening Standard, Stephen Robinson – apparently a veteran BBC man – complained at great length about the Beeb’s decision to move its sport coverage from London to Manchester (well, Salford Quays to be more precise). Robinson has got this one very wrong. The real oddity is why the Beeb didn’t make this move a long time ago.

His thesis consisted of two very shaky arguments. First, that London is the centre of the sporting universe. He actually gave this quite startling example:

Take the Pakistan cricket story. It has involved the police in London, a newspaper based in London, the Pakistani High Commissioner in London. We live in a highly centralised country. How can the BBC Sports department, or Five Live, cover that story from Manchester?

Am I missing something? This was a crime committed in London. This is why the investigation was led by the Metropolitan police. BBC Sport would cover the story from Manchester just like the current London-based organisation covers stories from around the country, and indeed the world. He says, ludicrously, that BBC Sport must be based in London because that’s where the News of the World (the newspaper at the centre of the story) is based. Aside from the fact that our national broadcaster should not take its cue from the News of the World, has Robinson wondered how on earth the News of the World itself managed to give so much coverage to recent stories, for instance, around Wayne Rooney’s private life? Did they insist that Wayne and Colleen relocate to London for the duration of their sex scandal?

Robinson also cites the London Olympics. Well, the BBC has managed to cover every other Olympic Games of modern times without being based in the host city, so I’m sure it will cope this time. As a matter of fact, the UK’s (and indeed the world’s) most popular and lucrative sporting enterprise, the Premier League, is largely Northern-led. London and the South-East have five Premier League clubs, whereas the North-West has eight – including England’s most successful (Liverpool), biggest (Man United), and richest (Man City) clubs.

Robinson’s second main argument is that BBC staff don’t really want to go, and will probably waste a lot of license-payers money scurrying between Manchester and London. He may be correct – but Robinson presents this as something that will plague BBC Sport in perpetuity. In fact, it is purely transitional. Ultimately the BBC is trying to open itself up to a wider talent pool. It will be both necessary and desirable for our national broadcaster to start hiring a few Mancunians. Maybe even a few Scousers.

And on this, for the first time in my life, I agree with Hazel Blears.

Channel 4 News let itself down over the Zac Goldsmith expenses story

Channel 4’s investigation into Zac Goldsmith’s general election expenses has not been a good advert for new politics, or indeed for old journalism.

Let’s deal with Goldsmith first.  Clearly there is a case to answer on his expenses.  Whether it’s posters paid for by council candidates that don’t mention the council campaign, or jackets with stickers on where only the stickers are counted as an expense, it doesn’t look good.  His defence – that all election candidates follow the rules in the same way he did – is a poor one.  It’s practically an admission of guilt. 

His appearance on Channel 4 News should also be used as an example to all politicians of how not to defend yourself against an allegation.  He must have seen enough of them giving this sort of interviews during the parliamentary expenses scandal – watch a few of those tapes, Zac.  Spending the first eight minutes arguing over the content of emails about whether or not he had agreed to be interviewed – supposedly, his honour had been traduced – made him look childish.  When you already have a hairstyle more suited to a student union bar than the House of Commons, appearing like an adult should be priority number one.

But for the most part, I am disappointed with Channel 4 News for its handling of this.  First of all, Jon Snow was every bit as guilty for spending those eight minutes arguing over emails.  It made bad tv and gave the viewers nothing.  Why didn’t he just give Goldsmith a minute or two to say whatever he wanted to say about the emails?  He could have responded with a line like, “I’m confident our viewers know we always strive to give those we are investigating every opportunity to defend themselves, so if you want to raise this with Ofcom go ahead,” and then moved on to the actual accusations.  Instead he engaged in the detail of the emails in a very unconvincing way.  I can only assume that Snow’s massive ego was bruised by the accusation over his journalistic ethics, and he just couldn’t let it go.  In future, Jon, just let the viewers make their own minds up.

About the investigation as a whole, Channel 4 News has done a poor job of explaining why they are focusing on Zac Goldsmith alone.  In the original piece and in the interview with Goldsmith, they mention that they looked at lots of MPs and Goldsmith’s stood out as the campaign that appeared to spend the most money while remaining below the spending limit.  Maybe that’s true, but where’s the evidence?  On both occasions this explanation was given to us as an aside – it should have been front and centre in any discussion of the issue, and we should have at least some evidence of how Goldsmith compares to other MPs being investigated.

However, even if it’s their belief that Goldsmith spent more than anyone else, does this justify the exclusive focus on him?  No.  They should have conducted and published an investigation into election expenses among all MPs.  There could have been a reasonable basis for choosing to focus on a subset of MPs, such as those who spent just under the limit, or those in close marginal seats.  Having done this, they could present Goldsmith as an example – perhaps a particularly bad one – of possible rule-breaking among a number of MPs.  It would have left Goldsmith in just as much trouble with the Electoral Commission, and would have denied him the chance to spin this as him being picked on by Jon Snow et al.  Instead, Channel 4 News has left itself looking opportunistic and sloppy.

Fake plastic ‘up and coming’ band

I pretty much gave up on Radiohead when I heard Thom Yorke utter the words, “we’re all born into a carbon lifestyle”.  When you start repeating things you’ve overheard baby Apple say at a Chris Martin-Gwyneth Paltrow dinner party, you know your time as a cutting edge indie rock star has come to an end.

But that hasn’t stopped Radiohead from continuing to try to recapture lost youth, and at this weekend’s Glastonbury festival we saw another example of self-denial.  First, to go back a few years, Radiohead released their 2007 album In Rainbows for free over the internet, allowing downloaders to pay whatever they wanted for it.  Now, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood have turned up unexpectedly at Glastonbury to play a  set on the Park Stage.  The Park Stage is normally reserved for new, undiscovered bands (although clearly having got a gig at Glastonbury means you have been discovered already).

Both of these examples might be considered the actions of a radical, anti-establishment band, sticking up for the music fans against the corporate overlords.  Except it’s a crock.  When Radiohead released In Rainbows for free, for that week after the release they effectively screwed over every other struggling new band out there.  Music fans have a limit to the amount of new music they can listen to – probably one new album per week is the norm.  So if Radiohead – a band we all know and used to love – release an ablum for free one week, it took up the time and space that an album from a new band could have filled (whether paid for or not).  The fact that so many more people “bought” In Rainbows than preceding Radiohead albums proves the point. 

And now by playing the Park Stage they’ve done it again.  A slot on the Gastonbury that might have been filled by a small band desperate to have its music heard has gone to Radiohead.  And of course, Radiohead got plenty of publicity for doing it, just like they got huge coverage of the In Rainbows release.  Whatever counter-cultural ideals Thom Yorke has in his head when he does this stuff, sometime he has to consider than when there is no obvious distinction between “sticking it to the man” and “marketing gimmick”, you’re doing something wrong.

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