Saturday, 30 June 2012

The worst minister ever?

This article appeared in the Yorker June 2012.

Objectivity is a dangerous thing in politics. The notion that your ideals and beliefs are factually, irrefutably superior to those of your opponents, that they are scientifically correct, has been the grounding of all the great evils of political history. That is why I have always opposed the extremism of those who claim the world can be reduced to a series of equations or policies which will guarantee prosperity if followed to the letter. This is because such thinking promotes the idea that those in opposition to such ideas are factually incorrect and thus barriers to goodness and progress. Indeed this is why I oppose the use of the word 'reform' for what is essentially privatisation and austerity.

However the past two years have slowly made me feel that an exception needs to be made to this rule; Michael Gove. Our beloved Education Secretary is plain wrong. Almost every one of his policies has been objectively incorrect. Take his views on reforming the teaching of history- replacing thematic and conceptual frameworks with mere repetition of facts and tales of “Our Island Story”. No. Just generally no. This is not what history about, remembering facts and dates, kings and queens is the exact type of history parodied in the famous “1066 and all that”. For well over 50 years it has been recognised that this is an non-constructive and pointless method of teaching history. The nationalistic connotations of “Our Island Story” are also worrying, implying a reversal in the appalling slow rate at which British history teaching has come to terms with the crimes of war and Empire. Ultimately for a long time it has been understood that using history to answer questions of who we are and how we got here is objectively better than teaching it as a pub quiz style patriotic fact-fest. What next? Chemistry without the periodic table? Biology without evolution? It just doesn’t make sense.

Free schools and academies are also flawed policies. The former will give more leeway to middle class parents with the time and resources to create local schools and further marginalise the poorer sections of society in the education system. The images of Toby Young planning a school to teach his little darlings Latin whilst drinking red wine in plush kitchens with other yummy mummies and daddies is just as chilling as the thought of evangelical or similar interests corrupting the minds of the youth from their minority standpoints. According to the NUT only 25% of parents want free schools, those that shout the loudest will always divert the scheme into one of unaccountability and fringe control. As for academies, it has been hinted by Gove that reforms will aim at brining even more corporate funding into the composition of such institutions. The free market and private sector are indeed much more efficient and able distributors of certain goods and services. However this does not apply to education where non-profit goals are key and thus the market can only serve to disregard the best interests of the young in exchange for greed and usury. This is already illustrated by the regression of years of pro-health food programmes in schools and the return of junk food and vending machines in 90% of academies.

Then we had the infamous bible scandal. Sure, there may be educational value to promoting a reading of the bible from a cultural or linguistic perspective. But this was largely already in place before 2010. Most children are aware of the basic cultural influences of Christianity via early school teaching or other sources. Hymns, RE, interest groups and so on already fulfil this function without parading Gove as the great patriarch of the nation's young. To waste £370,000 on printing a load of new bibles with the fact that they are from Gove himself paraded on the covers in golden sycophancy, was clearly the worst idea any one has ever had. Moreover, trying to demand schools teach more about religion will inevitably lead to further religious indoctrination of the youth, before they have the freedom to choose their religion. Something that any rational being should oppose.

And now, he is trying to scrap GCSEs with a return to O-Levels. The problem with this is that it is self-defeating for Gove, who has long argued that the overall vision of his education policy is to replace exam centred teaching with a broader and deeper mode of learning. Yet by creating even tougher exams, with fewer retakes so that the stakes are much higher, children and teachers will simply be increasingly obsessed with passing the exam rather than any constructive learning. We all know exams have gotten easier but the solution does not lie in suddenly cranking up the difficultly in a all or nothing exam sitting. Instead we should value learning on a much longer term scale based on classroom interactions and contributions.

The seemingly regressive nature of such policies illustrates the simplistic nature of Gove's weltanschuung. Other government policies are more arguable and potentially justifiable even if I personally disagree with them. In contrast Gove's education agenda is based on a blinkered view of live and a desperate attempt to reverse the progress of modernity.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The First Estate: BBC Bias

 For the Yorker June 2012

Once the hobby of angry Telegraph comment accounts and obscure, paranoid blogs, accusing the BBC of a left leaning bias is now perfectly acceptable in official centre-right circles. Boris Johnson exemplified this earlier this month with an attack on the “statist, corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, Europhile and overwhelmingly biased to the Left” organisation. More recently, Cameron's spin doctor, Craig Oliver, was filmed berating a BBC reporter for bias in a report on Jeremy Hunt and the Levenson enquiry. This is nothing new, conservatives have always accused the BBC of a pro-Labour or left leaning bias, with phrases like 'anti-business', 'anti-American', 'anti-Israel' and so on thrown in for good measure. These arguments are then used to conclude that the license fee be abolished and the BBC become like the paragon of impartiality that is Sky News. In reality, nothing has changed to justify the theme's shift from marginal blog rants to mayors and media manipulators. It is still driven by an absurd paranoia, one that is simply misplaced and does more to reveal how far the centre has been moved by the right in their favour, over recent years.

If anything the BBC could easily be said to have developed a right-leaning bias in recent years. The way modern media manipulation works is about not controlling what you think, but what you think about. By making reports about the potential abolition of the welfare state, repeatedly giving platforms to minority far-right groups like the Tax Payers' Alliance as if they were some time-honoured arbiters of public opinion and by bleeping out the word 'Palestine', the BBC is clearly guilty of this. Last week there was furore over the attempts to shamelessly present an ordinary human being as a feckless sub-human scrounger, and during last year's teaching strikes the Beeb did its up-most to try to portray parents as resentful when canvassing for opinions, despite general support for the teachers.

Individuals within the organisation also have clear biases and conflicts of interest, that tend towards the establishment. On a debate on fracking Jeremy Paxman dismissed any criticism of the policy beyond narrow, immediate economic growth as “ideological” (something which is in itself highly ideological), and thus irrelevant. This follows a string of arrogant remarks from Paxman such as berating Paul Mason's report on unrest in Greece for daring to suggest that some people might oppose unfair and morally bankrupt austerity. Further the aforementioned Oliver is also notable as his wife is a BBC News 24 reporter, while many others like James Lansdale and Nick Robinson come from the same private school, Oxbridge circles as the current political elite.

Governments of all colours have been known to bully and enforce their agenda upon the BBC or charm their way into sycophantic relationships with leading faces. Most infamously the Blair regime was able to seduce Andrew Marr into giving the most bias political report in BBC history after the fall of Baghdad, saying of Blair's critics “he has been right and they have been wrong”. Boris Johnson's now ex-media chief, Guto Harri (a former BBC man himself) sent a string of threatening emails to the corporation, threatening to use the influence of “good friends in number 10” to turn the national press even further against the BBC if it did not show the mayor in a good light. These are just snapshots of a wider connivance between the BBC and the 'establishment' by which I mean the collective mindset of leading political, economic and media spheres, often formed by the government of the day.

What this means is that the BBC does not have a partisan, left wing or right wing, bias but is one-sided in favour of whatever the 'establishment' constituents any given time. In a time when brutal and immoral austerity measures and elitist privatisations of democratically owned public services, measures that only benefit the 1%, are seen by the establishment as a progressive 'reform' agenda, a right-leaning bias is inevitable. The BBC supports the Coalition, just as it supported the more personal regimes of Blair and Brown. Those who criticise the BBC's “leftist agenda” must be shown to be what they truly are. Individuals and groups, far beyond the political centre and instead stuck in the world of Ron Paul esque, right-libertarian conspiracies. Because the BBC does not totally align to their marginal views at all times, it is accused of bias.

In the wider context of the revelations of the Levinson enquiry and other media scandals, this is a great opportunity to change our nation's relationship with what has become the first estate. Reform should aim at separating media from power elites and ensuring that only one company or individual owns one outlet. Gove and others fear such reforms will undermine “freedom of the press”. Yet these are the same people who have pushed our press far to the right in favour of their minority political agenda. Take the Telegraph; its accusations of 'Trotskyism' at the BBC, and offhand, unsubstantiated denials of anthropogenic global warming show that it is dominated by such brinkmanship. These people genuinely believe that New Labour, NGOs, Climate Change and various equality movements are all part of a Marxist conspiracy against 'god, capitalism and stability'. Their 'freedom' is like all their other 'freedoms'; the freedom of the rich and powerful to manipulate and control our lives under the illusions of meritocracy and popular government.

Instead a truly 'free' media will have firm regulations to ensure that such elites can no longer abuse its integrity. It will be a positive liberty I will not endorse the folly that news can somehow be impartial. Rather, if it must be partial, let it be bias in favour of compassionate ideals that we can all agree on. To decide what these are, we'll need a national conversation, and this time, it cannot be allowed to be corrupted by dissimulation. And to do this, we'll need an organisation to live up to its potential as a media outlet free from private finance and intrigue. We'll need a BBC.