School for scoundrels

It’s not exactly surprising that secretary of state for education Michael Gove has said he has “no ideological objection” to schools being run by businesses for profit. After all, as he points out, he is a Conservative: it’s pretty much a given that he’ll prefer corporations to citizens if the former wants something that the latter has. In this case, the something is funding for education.

I’m still small-minded enough to think that if there’s money washing about in the education system, then it should be reinvested back into education, not diverted to shareholders. I’m such a giddy idealist, I think that having already paid tax to support state education, it’s a bit bloody much for the state to cast that money out to the private sector on the understanding that profit is a better motive for education than responsibility. And I’m sufficiently economically naive that I just can’t understand how installing extra layers of non-educators is going to make the system more efficient or better value.

But while Gove says that “school improvement will be driven by professionals not profit-makers”, the profit-makers have already moved in. According to The Economist, Swedish for-profit company Kunskapsskolan is due to set up two academies in London. University College London is also getting into the academy business, and The Economist reckons they’ve chosen well: “Other universities might be advised to follow suit, for the government is ring-fencing spending in this financial year on schools. Universities are not so lucky.” (I guess someone has to pay for those grotesque vice-chancellors’ wages, and if the degree student glut is over, the younger ones will have to do.)

Even The Economist – which clearly thinks academy and free schools are a very good thing – is frank about who these new arrangements will help. It’s not going to be the children who most need support:

Whether having more academies will close the growing gap in academic performance between rich and poor children is moot; the new academies are more likely than existing ones to end up teaching well-off [pupils].

So the flagship education policy is going to entrench inequality, as well as suck funding away from schools and into the pockets of “providers”. And while all this is supposed to encourage appealing-sounding virtues like “autonomy” and “freedom”, Gove isn’t such an ideologue that he’s above a bit of centralised crowd-pleasing curriculum fiddling: he’s keen for empire-apologist Niall Ferguson to direct the history syllabus.

That’s the Niall Ferguson who, having weighed up everything and thought very hard about it, reckons that the deaths of millions of colonised Indians sits very fairly on the balance sheet opposite an entry for “increasing the GDP of Great Britain”. So children can learn the dogma of profits over people in the classroom, while they’re having the dogma of profits over people inflicted on them from outside, making Gove’s centralised decentralisation one of the most elegant hypocrisies of the coalition so far.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010; photo by Xin Li 88, used under Creative Commons.

Paper chasing

Guardian, Guardian, why did you desert Labour? Since The Guardian plumped its electoral backing behind the Lib Dems, there’s been a l0w cry of anguish from some Labour supporters, involving words like “betrayal” and “hypocrites” and “haha, look, David Cameron’s the prime minister anyway”. Kerry McCarthy MP goes for The Guardian again in a blogpost this weekend:

… with its ‘once in a lifetime chance to get PR’ line, [it] lost us the chance of winning several seats where the Labour challenger would have made a far better MP than the Lib Dem incumbent. See Lucy Powell’s campaign in Manchester Withington, where victory looked a dead cert until the Guardian stuck its oar in, and Bristol West, where the votes ebbed away after the Guardian came out for Clegg. And Labour was offering a referendum on AV anyway, which could have put PR on the agenda for discussion too (especially if Labour had been the biggest party, with the Libs holding the balance).

Shot By Both Sides, 22 May 2010, “Puttin’ it down”

One of the curious things about this election was how little the campaign seemed to matter. Back in October, when the feeling of inevitability for Dave was running high, I caught an episode of The Week In Westminster with a pollster and a psephologist discussing the relative standing of Labour and the Conservatives after conference season. Both of them called it for a hung parliament, on the grounds that the swing needed for a Tory majority was immense. Six months before polling day, before most of the papers had pinned on a rosette, it was known that the general election would come down to two things: how big the swing from Labour to Tory would be, and which party was most successful in courting the Lib Dems.

So did the papers’ support make any difference at all? Not really. After all, if The Sun’s Camobama fantasia and The Mail’s dire threats of a fiery doom couldn’t sway it for the Tories, it’s laughable to imagine (even in tentative brackets as McCarthy does) that The Guardian’s support might have made Labour the biggest party in Westminster. As it happens, the Lib Dems gained a measly 1% of the vote and lost 5 seats – hardly a triumph for tactical voting. This was a bad election for newspapers, and a combination of poor judgement and hubris served to underline the fact that newspapers really aren’t as influential as they’d like to be.

But politicians still believe in the power of the press – still crave the cushion of a friendly new agenda. Which leaves the depressing spectacle of the Labour leadership contenders running around, chirping anti-immigration talking points back at the right-wing media that created them. This dedication to becoming BNP-lite seems more likely to undo Labour than any amount of disagreement with The Graun over electoral reform. Labour’s pursuit of press support will hurt it much more than the withdrawal of media backing ever could.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010

A shrug of complaint

In 2002, I joined a Stop The War march in Sheffield. I didn’t enjoy my time as a protestor very much: I was a pushing a buggy, my baby started crying, there was some chanting, we shuffled around the city centre perimeter, and then I peeled off glumly to finish my shopping, feeling slightly embarrassed.

It wasn’t a moving moment of communal resistance. It was a tired shrug of complaint directed at some ministers who weren’t even looking. It rained a bit, and later on there was a war because there was always going to be a war anyway. So that was a good use of an afternoon.

It’s the Iraq war that feels like the biggest disgrace and disappointment of the Labour government. I hate the PFIs, and the patronising and ignorant populism, and the student fees, and the ruinous way that business and banking interests were whored to. Those things have all been depressing and awful and deceitfully introduced, obviously, but they mostly haven’t involved actually killing people on purpose. It doesn’t matter when the Labour party shunts out Brown, or who ultimately replaces him: I don’t want to vote for them until they’ve purged every person who ushered that bloody war through parliament.

That doesn’t matter very much where I live, because it’s a solidly Lib Dem area with an MP I won’t hate myself for electing. But you can’t build hopes and dreams on the Lib Dems. They’re political stodge: acceptable and wholesome enough, but a bit depressing when you’re looking at a whole plateful. Better, though, than the Tories – whose prospective government promises to continue everything grim about the current one while unapologetically rewarding the rich for being, um, rich. So I want the Tories to lose, Labour don’t deserve to win, and the Lib Dems fill me with limb-deadening ennui. Election 2010 will be an early night for me, I guess.

© Sarah Ditum, 2010

[Guest post] Having my say: Griffin on QT

This is a guest post by Nelson of spEak You’re bRanes.

Do you think I don’t understand what my friend, the Professor, long ago called The Hydrostatic Paradox of Controversy?

Don’t know what that means? – Well, I will tell you. You know that, if you had a bent tube, one arm of which was of the size of a pipe-stem, and the other big enough to hold the ocean, water would
stand at the same height in one as in the other. Controversy equalizes fools and wise men in the same way, – And the fools know it.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

Image by Beau Bo d'Or (click for link)Like any thoughtful person, I think the BBC’s “Have Your Say” (HYS) is fucking rubbish. It’s not entirely down to the inherent futility of arguing on the internet, and it’s not just because the BNP appear to be actively targeting it, creating the perception that public opinion is skewed towards hate and stupidity. It’s down to the concept of “balance” which, in BBC world at least, appears to involve treating every opinion equally, no matter how idiotic or dangerous it might be.

Unlike the Guardian site or the Daily Mail site, the BBC don’t often allow all comments (with occasional moderation, of course) but rather tend to hold everything in a moderation queue before making editorial decisions about which to publish. This is apparently done in an effort to keep things “balanced”. Frankly, it does my nut that, somewhere at the Beeb, there are otherwise intelligent people who subscribe to the idea that choosing what to publish and what to suppress is somehow going to make things more representative of public opinion. Presumably these people are so ludicrously impartial, so supremely capable of stepping outside their own frame of reference that they are able to divine the mood of the nation better than the nation itself.

As a result of this highly-educated lunacy, HYS is worse than “Comment is Free” at the Guardian and it’s worse than the Daily Mail, where everything gets published but people can at least vote comments down as well as up.

Everyone knows HYS is shit. It’s why I created the Speak You’re Branes blog and it’s why people read it. We all share this bemusement and a kind of grumbling baseline level of anger that the BBC are wasting our money nurturing the awfulness. But this is not why I’m having my say now. I’m always a bit angry about the BBC (BBC news specifically) whether it’s their refusal to broadcast a charity appeal when Palestinians are being murdered or the remarkable deference and credulity they extend to powers who’ve been caught lying and cheating over and over again. Today, however, I’m very angry at the BBC. Angry enough that I finally have to say something serious about their craven behaviour.

Tonight the BBC will host an episode of Question Time on which they have invited the ex-National Front, holocaust-denying, criminal, racist Nick Griffin to appear. You’ll have to forgive me if I’m not bang up to date with the fucking news but as I understand it Peter Hain tried to mount a legal challenge to this and has sadly failed. I’m very much behind the idea that, as a criminal “whites only” organisation, the BNP shouldn’t be accorded the same status as other political parties but what if, as seems likely, they change their rules to fit within the law? Much as I’d love to see every last brown-skinned person in this country join the BNP and destroy it from within, I doubt that will happen. We cannot oppose the BNP on legal grounds alone.

I think the BBC is presenting two, equally facile, arguments here. Firstly, let’s get the free speech thing out the way. The issue is not free speech. Free speech is what I’m doing right now. It doesn’t entitle me to get on Question Time. In fact, the kind of language I use would be deemed too offensive. Unlike that revolting wanksock Nick fucking Griffin. By preventing Griffin from appearing on Question Time they would be making the same class of decision as when they decide not to invite Gok Wan on. It’s an editorial decision. The BBC trust are mostly fairly clear on this themselves, but when the point is pressed, Mark Thompson starts to talk about democracy, censorship and free speech. Free speech does not mean providing a platform, on Question Time, for anyone that would like one.

The second problem is the idea that, just because the BNP exist and are a political party, they are somehow entitled to be listened to. This is all down to the BBC’s retarded idea of “balance”, only now it’s not funny. It’s moved from creating a comically stupid comments board to legitimising a bunch of far-right racists and, almost certainly, contributing to their future electoral success. As Wikipedia puts it:

Because voters have to predict in advance who the top two candidates will be, this can cause significant perturbation to the system:

* Substantial power is given to the media. Some voters will tend to believe the media’s assertions as to who the leading contenders are likely to be in the election. Even voters who distrust the media will know that other voters do believe the media, and therefore those candidates who receive the most media attention will nonetheless be the most popular and thus most likely to be in one of the top two.

[…]

* If enough voters use this tactic, the first-past-the-post system becomes, effectively, runoff voting – a completely different system – where the first round is held in the court of public opinion.

You may even be agreeing with everything here but think that the BNP should still be allowed to appear, in which case I’d ask you to have a think about where you would draw a line. Would you allow a platform to a party that wanted to bring back slavery? A party that wanted to take away the right of women to vote? A party that wanted to lower the age of consent to 14? What about 10? 5? 2? I’m hoping we’d all draw the line somewhere. My point is simply that we can’t pretend there’s some kind of universal accepted threshold, written on a stone tablet by an omniscient moral arbiter. We have to decide, as a society, what is and isn’t acceptable and draw the line at that point. Everyone I know would agree that all humans, regardless of nationality or skin colour, are equal. Yet the BBC, by allowing the BNP a platform on Question Time, have drawn that line in such a way as to make racism appear acceptable. It’s not a forced move, they’ve made a disgusting, cowardly choice. Fuck everyone involved.

Text © Nelson, 2009. Image © Beau Bo d’Or, 2009.

New post on Liberal Conspiracy: How Judge Eady went from press villain to hero

I’ve got a new post up at Liberal Conspiracy, where I ramble speculatively about the way Mr Justice Eady’s decisions on media law seem to be acting in combination against scrutiny at all levels of reporting: the sex scandal, science coverage, and anonymous whistle-blowing:

It’s not unusual for public figures to experience severe reversals of reputation, and the distance between “nation’s sweetheart” and “national disgrace” can be as short as a few column inches. But Mr Justice Eady’s recent rehabilitation in the eyes of the press is a remarkable one – for the swiftness with which some editors have shifted position, and for what it suggests about the future possibilities for scrutiny in the media.

Read the rest here…

Edit: I accidentally gave Eady a peerage, so I’ve fixed that here.

The culture we make

I don’t like waking up to Nick Griffin being interviewed on the Today Programme one tiny bit, and since you’re reading my blog, you probably don’t like it either. That’s the thing about an ultra-stratified media world: your readers choose you, and they probably choose you because they agree with you already. Or, maybe, because they’re looking for an opponent to their own beliefs – but either way, it’s unlikely that many minds are going to be changed. On Sunday night, my Twitter feed was full of people worrying that the approach they’d taken to the BNP was the wrong one: maybe shouting “fascists” doesn’t work after all, they muttered.

Well, it depends who you’re saying it to. And saying it to a self-selecting group of Twitter-followers and blog readers probably isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. People who vote BNP have got their own outlets, and it seems that they like to spend a lot of time there, having their prejudices reinforced. Talking among ourselves is useful, it solidifies purpose, it makes action possible – but it only rises above being a pointless stunt if you make it a prelude to doing more.

6% of a one-third turnout is hardly a resounding embrace of fascist politics, but it’s enough to win them money and prominence to present their arguments. The BNP know about the shortcomings in journalism, and they’re keen to exploit them: even a local council candidate appreciates the value of the newswire in broadcasting his message.

Challenging mainstream press and broadcasters over unproven assertion presented as fact might be a good start. Checking their sources. Confirming whether the pictures they use are accurate. Pressuring them to move away from reporting how they think people feel (thereby turning those perceived feelings into confirmed grievances) and towards reporting what actually is, with a critical eye on statistics and surveys. And when you find a mistake, not just blogging about it, but writing to the publisher or broadcaster and pointing out where they’ve gone wrong. Culture isn’t inborn (despite what the BNP say), it’s made. At the moment, we have a news culture that fosters half-truths, lies and unchallenged agendas: I think that can be remade. I think it has to be remade.

A very dim engagement

A few month before, the racial laws against the Jews had been proclaimed, and I too was becoming a loner. My Christian classmates were civil people; none of them, nor any of the teachers, had directed at me a hostile word or gesture, but I could feel them withdraw and, following an ancient pattern, I withdrew as well: every look exchanged between me and them was accompanied by a miniscule but perceptible flash of mistrust and suspicion. What do you think of me? What am I for you? The same as six months ago, your equal who does not go to mass,or the Jew who, as Dante put it, “in your midst laughs at you”?

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table, p. 40

This evening, the Euro election results for the UK will be announced. The Dutch elections have already seen the far-right PVV become the Netherlands’ second-largest party in the European parliament; now, we wait and see whether our home-grown fascists have gained any Euro seats to go with the three council seats they’ve won.

Any benefit to the BNP means we will definitely be hearing more about engagement. Matthew Goodwin writing in The New Statesman is typical of this line:  “Working-class anxieties over immigration and multiculturalism are often dismissed as bigotry, but concerns run deep,” he writes.

There then follows a barrage of uncontextualised percentages: “60 per cent of Britons feel that there are too many immigrants in Britain”, “80 per cent feel that the government has lied to them about the scale of migration”, “nearly half of voters said they would support policies encouraging migrants to return to their country of origin”, “immigration is brought up by between three and four in every ten respondents in regular MORI polls asking about the most important problems facing the country”. His conclusion? “Put simply, these concerns need to be addressed.”

These aren’t figures about the actual, quantifiable effect of immigration and multiculturalism on the UK. They’re figures about the perceived effect. And where do people derive these perceptions from? A popular media which propagates a constant sense of hostility and anxiety towards non-white, non-Christian groups, and a government which derives its idea of consensus from the opinion pages of the press and vomits up the rhetoric of fear and hate.

It’s possible that when Goodwin and others like him say that the BNP’s arguments must be addressed, what they mean is that the false divisions, abuses of logic and denial of fact given out by the BNP – and echoed, consciously or otherwise, by apparently legitimate bodies – must be addressed, corrected, crushed.

But Goodwin’s piece doesn’t exactly say that. It certainly doesn’t explicitly say at any point that the BNP is a party of racists whose political aspirations are purely anti-democratic. What is says is that “simply bashing the party as ‘Nazi’ no longer works. Voters in some areas are so exasperated with the political Establishment, and so desperate for an alternative, that they don’t care about the party’s extremist credentials.” So, according to Goodwin, writing in the mainstream journal of left-wing party politics, we must address the BNP’s appeal, but it’s pointless to call them racist – so what form is that address supposed to take?

He doesn’t say. But I suspect that “engaging” with the BNP, and yet not calling them for the contemptible and violent bigots they are, is one of the most thoughtless rhetorical steps politicians could take up. It’s the hollow logic of consumerism applied to manifestos, the contemptible drive to expand your party’s appeal, to give the voters something to beckon them into your little marketplace of ideas. Something – even, apparently, listening to witless racism as though it was a set of legitimate concerns.

And you want to attract that sort of voter, so you tolerate that sort of rhetoric rather than calling it what it is, and you let it seep further into the speech of general politics and daily life, and you allow the conditions of mutual mistrust and withdrawal experienced by Levi in 1930s Italy to grow up in Britain, now – yet the simplest thing to do, when faced with arguments of no merit, should be to dismiss them:

And finally, and fundamentally, an open and honest boy, did he not smell the stench of Fascist truths which tainted the sky?  Did he not perceive it as an ignominy that a thinking man should be asked to believe without thinking? Was he not filled with disgust at all the dogmas, all the unproven affirmations, all the imperatives? He did feel it; so then, how could he not feel a new dignity and majesty in our study, how could he ignore the fact that the chemistry and physics on which we fed, besides being in themselves nourishments vital in themselves, were the antidote to Fascism which he and I were seeking, because they were clear and distinct and verifiable at every step, and not a tissue of lies and emptiness, like the radio and newspapers?

The Periodic Table, p. 42

In my daily life, I often feel a gentle Whiggish complacency about my life, the same tendency that gets condemned in Dawkins. I pull the advances of medicine, the welfare state and civil rights around me like a blanket to muffle out the terrible whine of global iniquity, exploitation, bigotry and aggression. But the severest repression and genocide has happened in living memory, in my continent, in nation states that are constituted like the one in which I live. The same beliefs which informed those hateful policies are still extant, and must be answered – not on the terms of their own stupidity and aggression, but on the terms of a better state which prizes knowledge and fairness.