The two faces of journalism

A deeply unsatisfying and unquestioning exhibition at Somerset House.

Source: Getty Images

Call me an idealist, but I have long harboured the belief that the role of journalism is to ask probing questions and to uncover the truth no matter the cost. To expose hypocrisy and deceit wherever it is found. What happens, then, when this hypocrisy and deceit bleeds through from the subject into the profession itself?

2011 saw mass protests, change and social upheaval across the world on an unprecedented scale. From the uprisings in the Arab world to the Occupy movement on Wall Street and the August riots on Britain's high streets, journalists and journalism have been at the heart of this change. Recording, documenting and analysing.

Or have they?

Deep in the bowels of Somerset House, a new exhibition professes to offer the public an insider's peek into the world of frontline journalism. Using an abundance of stills and flickering, ghostly footage taken from Sky News broadcasts, the exhibition charts the coverage of breaking news events in the UK and Middle East. This overload of graphic images and self-congratulatory interviews creates a neat, self-packaged and digestible version of frontline journalism that encourages none of the probing, questioning and analysing for which such journalism is renowned.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that an exhibition sponsored by Rupert Murdoch's Sky News presents such a self-consciously rosy picture of news coverage around the world (after all, Sky was arguably the only true winner in the Libyan conflict). But what strikes me most is the hypocrisy and double-standards evident in both the way the exhibition is presented, and the unquestioning approach it takes to the role of journalists on the frontline of breaking news stories.

The exhibition is divided into two sections: one side of the room documents the so-called "Arab Spring", where the perpetrators are referred to as "revolutionaries" and "rebels"; while the other side is dedicated to the London riots, whose participants are branded as "hooligans", "criminals" and "vandals".

Now, I do not question that what happened here in Britain is fundamentally different from the mostly democratic uprisings that have been taking place across the Arab world, but the lack of any comparative analysis or questioning of such superficially similar events is frankly worrying. The tacit assumption that what is happening Libya, Egypt and Syria is necessarily a Good Thing -- with no mention of the instability and chaos that has gripped these countries in the past year; or indeed the complicity of western powers in propping up those very dictators of whom we are now lauding the demise -- is telling of the preconceptions we westerners often have when commenting on events in the Middle East. Perversely, there is simultaneously no mention of the social and political conditions that may (or may not) have played a part in fuelling the resentment of Britain's rioters.

I'm not saying that the toppling of Mubarak and Ben Ali are not to be celebrated, or indeed that I condone in any way the actions of those who smashed their way through our high streets over the summer. What concerns me is that an exhibition whose self-professed aim is to offer "a unique insight into the editorial, political and human aspects of news reporting" fails to ask some of the most basic questions that all journalists reporting on breaking news stories should be asking: What is a protest, how does it start, why does it continue and who is involved?

Because it is only by asking questions that we can uncover the truth.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a journalist and writer specialising in the Middle East and currently living and working in London.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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