Striking teachers, digital firsts and Johann Hari’s method journalism

Peter Wilby’s engaging and entertaining take on the big stories of the week.

Teachers' strikes are peculiar beasts. The point of most strikes is to hurt employers by stopping production or sales, thereby reducing revenues and profits. When teachers (and most other public-sector workers) walk out, employers save money because they don't have to pay the strikers. Yet politicians and newspapers make a mighty fuss, lamenting the "damage" to children's education and economic losses from parents missing work. These alleged effects have never been properly quantified, nor weighed against significant reductions in traffic congestion when schools are closed. For the teachers' strike in 2008, the British Chambers of Commerce put losses to business at £68m, less than a tenth of the usual estimate for a day's snow. The figure was based on the questionable assumption that one parent in every working family took the day off.

But it suits everybody to dramatise the occasion: teachers want to publicise their grievances; government wants to step up attempts to turn private- against public-sector workers, portraying the latter as selfish and feather-bedded. We should all calm down. Strikes are not moral issues. They are legitimate parts of the bargaining process by which wage earners seek to improve pay, pensions and conditions. Or rather, they used to be. Strikes are now almost exclusively about protecting what employees have. Teachers and other public-sector workers may enjoy better pensions than most but pensions represent deferred salary and, if employee contributions go up (by about 50 per cent for teachers) and benefits are delayed and reduced, it amounts to a pay cut. I doubt we shall see anything like the 1926 General Strike, when miners faced wage reductions of 10-25 per cent, but the issues are similar.

I'm all right, Jack

One should naturally treat figures from the Taxpayers' Alliance with scepticism, but I have never seen convincing denials of claims that six-figure remuneration packages are now routine for union leaders, with Unite's Derek Simpson topping the table at £188,626 in 2009-2010. I accept that advancing the workers' interests is a more worthwhile occupation than running a bank, editing a newspaper or being a Tory prime minister. Yet I wonder what the late Transport and General Workers Union leader Jack Jones would have thought. He lived in council accommodation all his life, refused a peerage and gave a £10,000 retirement gift away. Late in life, he was accused of selling "secrets" to the Soviets but these amounted to little more than routine Labour Party documents, for which he received a few hundred pounds. He probably gave that money away, too, having deducted the cost of tea and cakes served to KGB agents in his council flat.


I am the guilty man who gave the Independent columnist Johann Hari his first job in journalism on the NS. Now an online storm has broken over his alleged plagiarism. In at least two interviews, he borrowed quotations from his subjects' writings or other interviews and passed them off as though they had been said to him. Far from denying the charges, he argues that interviewees often say things they have expressed more succinctly elsewhere. So why not give readers the better version?

I've done it myself but made clear that the words were spoken or written on another occasion. Hari, however, is following a journalistic tradition, summarised by the late Nicholas Tomalin. He once eavesdropped on a private meeting and began his copy: "Crouched beneath 18th-century floorboards . . . I heard . . . " The words were struck out. Though journalists nearly always use "guile, subterfuge. . . lying, cheating and. . . straightforward criminality", Tomalin later wrote, none of this must be revealed. It must seem that, wherever he goes, a reporter is received with "eager, open-armed welcome". And with perfectly formed sentences, Hari would presumably add.

Digital first, profits when?

The Guardian, looking determinedly to the future, has announced a "digital first" policy, whereby writers, and some commentators, will break stories and share thoughts online as events unfold instead of saving their best shots for the following day's paper. Instant, hour-by-hour journalism isn't new: evening papers with several editions did it for years. But working to different journalistic time frames is tricky, as companies discover when they try to combine the staffs of Sundays and dailies. The Mail, with separate staff for a distinct online product, has the best solution. The Guardian can't afford such luxuries and risks damaging the paper. At present, digital contributes £40m at best to its £221m turnover, and even in five years it expects only to double that. Metaphors about geese and golden eggs come to mind.

Isle have a great time

Tell people you're going on holiday to Majorca or Greece, and you get the usual "Wish I was coming" response. Tell them you're going to Orkney, as my wife and I did last month, and you get a puzzled silence, followed by an incredulous "Where?" or "Why?". Only the Guardian columnist George Monbiot, whom we serendipitously met during an overnight stop in the Lake District ("Why are you not travelling by train?" he demanded), expressed envy.

But the puzzled silences signify that you're about to have a great holiday. The Orkney Islands are so empty that you can drive or walk for miles without seeing another living soul. The islands have historic sites dating back to the Stone Age, dramatic clifftop walks, abundant wildlife, huge skies and a serenity we'd experienced nowhere else. Just don't pick up the Scottish Daily Mail, which, amazingly, is worse than its southern counterpart.

Peter Wilby was editor of the New Statesman from 1998-2005

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 04 July 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Afghanistan