Empire of the Sun

If the Murdoch tabloid dies, I reserve the right not to mourn.

The arrest yesterday of Sun journalists over suspected payments to police and public officials doesn't mean anything, least of all the closure of the Sun. Those arrested are innocent until proven guilty, and have committed no crime, so we ought to be fair to them.

True, the Sun hasn't been spectacularly fair in the past to people such as Barry George, Robert Murat or Christopher Jefferies, who were all wrongly linked to serious crimes they hadn't committed. They weren't very fair either to brothers Mohammed Abul Kahar and Abul Koyair when the pair were arrested (and later released without charge) over a chemical bomb plot which the Sun reported as "imminent" according to its sources. But that doesn't mean that the employees of the Sun shouldn't be subjected to the fairness that their newspaper hasn't always shown in the past.

Is the Sun in serious danger of going the same way as the News of the World? It's too early to say, of course, but it's always fun to speculate, so let's imagine a world in which the Sun is doomed. If the Sun did set (yes, I went there) on Britain's most popular paper, it could be seen as a disaster, as was the Screws' closure some months ago. We could sit around mourning the loss of popular tabloid journalism, fearing that the futurewithout a pair of tits on page 3 and Hagar The Horrible might be something slightly more monochrome, less fun, more dull. That's a concern, I suppose, though I don't think those talented journos who work for the Sun will fade into obscurity, and if there really is a market for this kind of thing -and there appears to be, given its massive popularity - then people will be willing to stump up for it.

But look at how things have stayed exactly the same since the NOTW collapsed under the weight of its own wrongdoing. It's not as if there's
something missing that we couldn't find anywhere else. Perhaps a couple of celebrities have got away with a bit of shagging in a Travelodge that they might have had exposed beforehand; perhaps some other issue of more vital public interest has not come to light, which would have been exposed thanks to the dogged determination of the Screws' investigative reporters. We'll never really know for sure.

It's easy to depict a world in which the mung-bean-weaving flip-flopping Guardianista buzzkills have brought about the closure of a much-loved titan of journalism which in a way has weakened our ability to hold democracy to account with a free press. Inviting narrative though that might be for some people, that's not really the case. If the Screws hadn't done things that were unethical and wrong, they wouldn't have offended their core readership and toxified their brand, and they'd still be around: that's the top and bottom of it, and let's not pretend otherwise.

It's easy, too, to think that this is in some way a revenge by politicians against journalists, that those lily-livered liberals who rejoice over the demise of their tabloid tormentors are playing into the hands of the authorities, who have arrested more journalists this year than Robert Mugabe and who are clamping down on dissent. Also inviting, but also wrong - and besides, the Sun for example is such a roll-over-and-tickle-my-tummy faithfulsupporter of this government and its projects that it's hardly providing a huge challenge to the powers that be.

A more likely scenario, perhaps, is that an ageing Rupert Murdoch, who has plenty of other projects to keep him and his empire busy that don't involve seeing his employees ending up in police stations, might think that enough is enough, and try to sell the profitable but toxic Sun on to some other buyer. Why bother with these constant problems? It was the most humbling day of his life to date to appear before the DCMS committee, but perhaps there are more humbling days to come.

In the meantime, there isn't any glee to be had at the potential redundancy of journalists, though that doesn't mean the world would automatically be a better place with the Sun in it, nor that people don't have every right to recall the unethical and unfair behaviour of that newspaper, among others out there. As a (largely) redundant former journalist myself, I know what it's like to find a job in the media nowadays: not a whole heap of fun. If you don't mind, though, I think I may reserve the right to not mourn the demise of the Sun, if it did happen - though I don't think it will.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times