What Gove's meetings with Murdoch tell us

Is News Corp looking to set up its own free schools?

Of all the meetings that cabinet ministers had with News International executives (on average, a member of the cabinet met a Murdoch executive every three days), it is Michael Gove's that are the most eye catching. The Education Secretary listed 11 meetings at which executives from the company were present, including seven with Rupert Murdoch. Gove met the News Corp head more times than any other minister and had dinner with him twice last month.

Here's the full list:

19 May 2010 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus more than ten others. Dinner and general discussion.

10 June 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

17 June 2010 News International executives and senior editors, including Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), and Rebekah Brooks (News International). Lunch and general discussion.

21 October 2010 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International), James Harding (The Times), Dominic Mohan (The Sun), James Murdoch (News Corporation), Colin Myler (News of the World), John Witherow (Sunday Times) plus more than ten others. Dinner after Centre for Policy Studies lecture.

30 November 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International), Will Lewis (News International), James Harding (The Times). Academy visit.

17 December 2010 Rebekah Brooks (News International) plus several others. Social.

25 - 28 January 2011 Joel Klein (now News Corporation, former Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and Assistant Attorney General to President Clinton), visiting UK as guest of DfE to explain and discuss US education policy success, including large conference platform and assorted dinners with senior figures from education and the media, including Rupert Murdoch. Including private and public events

31 January 2011 Rebekah Brooks (News International), plus several others. Dinner hosted by Academy sponsor Charles Dunstone.

19 May 2011 James Harding (The Times), Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), James Murdoch (News Corporation), Rebekah Brooks (News International). Breakfast and general discussion.

16 June 2011 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation) plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

26 June 2011 Rupert Murdoch (News Corporation), plus several others. Dinner and general discussion.

It all suggests, as Andy Burnham said, a rather strange set of priorities. The shadow education secretary noted that in his first seven months, Gove "didn't manage to visit a single sixth form college, further education college or special school."

So, what's the explanation? Gove is, of course, a former Times journalist, who, we know from the register of members' interests, received £5,000 a month for his weekly column. He is also due to write a biography of Viscount Bolingbroke for the Murdoch-owned Harper Collins. Then there's his friendship with Murdoch consigliere Joel Klein (he sat next to Wendi Deng at the select committee hearing), the former chancellor of the New York department of education, who is now the head of News Corp's new "management and standards committee" and the CEO of its growing education division. Significantly, it was Klein's charter schools that served as one of the key inspirations for Gove's "free schools" project.

A spokesman for Gove said: "He's known Rupert Murdoch for over a decade. He did not discuss the BSkyB deal with the Murdochs and isn't at all embarrassed about his meetings, most of which have been about education which is his job."

The News Corp head, it seems, is taking an increasing interest in the subject. At last month's Times CEO summit (£) he called for all pupils to be provided with tablet computers, adding that he would be "thrilled" if 10 per cent of News Corp's revenues came from education in the next five years. Wireless Generation, an education technology company recently acquired by Murdoch for $360m, was awarded a a $27 million no-bid contract by the New York education department.

It begs the question of whether News Corp is looking to set up its own free schools. In response to such a query, Times columnist and executive editor Daniel Finkelstein tweeted:

News Corp is indeed taking an interest in the creation of new schools. That is precisely what mtgs were about!

It's not hard to see why the company is "taking an interest", particularly if the schools are eventually allowed to make a profit. But, to coin a phrase, would News Corp really be considered a "fit and proper" company to run a school?

Even if the company's ambitions are limited to digital learning systems and other services, it could find itself under scrutiny. In the wake of the hacking scandal, the NY education department is under pressure to revoke the $27 million contract it awarded to Wireless Generation. Mark Johnson, a spokesman for controller Thomas DiNapoli, has announced that the scandal will be taken into account in the state review process for the contract. But will Gove allow News Corp to make similar inroads into English education?

Update: The Sun's former political editor George Pascoe Watson (now a partner at Portland Communications) notes on Twitter: "[I]s News Corp looking to set up its own free schools?>The Sun+Civitas already have done."

A glance at the Civitas website shows that the Sun funds a Saturday school at the Ensign Youth Club in Wapping.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.