The value of the NHS and the BBC is immeasurable

Attempts to denigrate these public institutions must be resisted

It has never been easy to justify making people pay for something they don't use. That is often how disgruntled Britons now see the NHS and BBC, despite the fact that often those who complain about their high taxes or the licence fee conveniently forget their recent trip to their GP, the maternity ward or the hours they spend enjoying commercial-free TV and radio. But the greatest value of these last major publicly owned institutions is not even quantifiable and it is the consistent failure to make this most difficult of cases for the defence that leaves them so vulnerable.

There is a lot to moan about at the moment. We can gripe about crime and bad schools or the Olympics bringing London to standstill or corrupt and elitist politicians – a dog even won Britain's Got Talent. But there are still a few things that make me relatively pleased to live here. Two things, in fact. The poor raggedy old NHS and the bloated, sometimes crappy but often wonderful BBC. The reasons for lumping these two behemoths together is simple: they both contribute to something well beyond their material value and they are both under dire threat.

Sometimes it seems as if the forces of free-market conservatism are out to get the NHS and BBC precisely because their true worth cannot be expressed on a balance sheet. They are the unfinished business of Thatcherite reform. It's as if it is not just that the government wants to dismantle the NHS for the benefit of profiteering healthcare firms and the BBC for their media-mogul friends, but that it simply can't stand the idea of people contributing to a communal pot for the benefit of everyone. It must really get up the noses of Boris Johnson, who called for a Tory director general this week, and Andrew Lansley, who has fewer friends in public health than the MRSA superbug, to see people “wasting” their money on obscure radio stations and someone else's heart op.

What the NHS and BBC embody and promote is that most slippery and seemingly useless political trope - the public good. This makes it even easier for their opponents. That the mayor of London, not exactly unencumbered by friends in the media, thinks he has the right to meddle in the affairs of the BBC shows the danger it is in. That, after labelling nurses and doctors as communists, the health secretary can this week effectively accuse the Royal College of Nursing of lying over job cuts again demonstrates the way opposition to NHS privitisation is portrayed as wrong economically and ideologically. So in both cases, the fight to save the head and heart of the nation should not only employ facts and figures, but the abstract. Sharing, redistribution, pluralism, protecting the less able and serving the less resourced - these are not worthless because they cannot be rendered statistically. The issue goes far beyond ratings for Eastenders and Radio 3 or cancer recovery rates and waiting times for hip replacements.

It is logical for me to pay for a local radio station that I don't listen to because it serves a community in a way a commercial one never could - or a national network I don't like because it enriches our culture in a way a profit-seeking company would never have the freedom to. I don't need to benefit directly or even “see” the benefit in others, because I am already benefiting by living in a society where such things exist. In the health service the advantages are even more blatant. By contributing to the cost of healthcare for the poorest in society, the wealthiest are helping to reduce suffering in others and by extension for everyone. The social benefits of better universal health, more workers and less crime for example, are obvious, but an explanation involves the kind of conceptual thinking politicians do not trust themselves to present to the public.

The enormous cost of the NHS and the BBC and the way the funds are collected from the public are being used as a hammer to provoke the basest reflexes of self-interest and insularity, Preying on the short-termism and anxiety of recession, the enemies of public ownership are seeking to create an environment in which such ideals are seen as redundant and archaic. It doesn't help that the BBC is guilty of grandiloquent and budget busting projects, yet turns to cutting local and specialist radio – perhaps the greatest expression of its public service – to save money. Despite the faults and weaknesses of both institutions, the forces against them should be resisted. The NHS and BBC, flawed as they are, are not merely worth protecting, they are just about the only two things left that preserve any sense of national community and cohesion.

The mere act of public funding has value. It is not selfless charity or waste; providing our hard-earned wages for something not solely for our own good contributes to our own good because the world we live is a kinder, better, less dumb, less rapacious place for it. In other words, if you think Britain is a divided, violent, parochial and unenlightened country to live in now, without the NHS and the BBC it would be immeasurably worse. There's the rub: the NHS and the BBC make Britain a better place to live - immeasurably.

George Chesterton blogs on politics and culture for the Huffington Post UK

BBC headquarters at Media City UK Photograph: Getty Images

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.