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.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.