Glitter’s girls, “difficult” choices and the problem with English hotels

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

Revelations of Jimmy Savile’s behaviour towards girls under 16 have prompted another bout of BBC-bashing in the right-wing press. But if the BBC was negligent, where were newspapers and their fearless reporters? They plead that libel laws prevented them exposing Savile while he was alive, but even in his obituary, the Telegraph called him an “adornment” to British life.

If newspapers couldn’t tell the truth about Savile, they could at least have refrained from raising him to the status of a latter-day saint. The truth is that the press meekly colludes in creating whatever image a star’s PR wishes to propagate, with no questions asked. Paul Gadd (alias Gary Glitter), now reviled as Savile’s collaborator in procuring underage girls, was interviewed by the Sun in 1973. It celebrated “the rock’n’roll Daddy who makes little girls ask to see more of his hairy chest” and added “Gary Glitter thinks a lot about kids”. Such an innocent era.

Family values

The Tories keep talking about “difficult choices on spending” but they only ever make one choice and I don’t think they find anything difficult about it at all: they just keep on bashing the poor. The latest idea for a welfare cut is to deny help to jobless parents who continue to procreate. Given that about 40 per cent of poor children live in families of three or more, this would be a harsh measure indeed. The policy is already partly on the statute book in the form of the benefit cap, which, from April, will save the not very princely sum of £250m a year.

It is not generally understood that, in paying more benefit for a first or only child (£20.30 a week) than for subsequent children (£13.40), the UK is unusual among developed countries. Most pay the same rate for each child and some, including France, Germany and Italy, pay a higher rate for third and subsequent children. Their governments take the view that, though large families enjoy some economies of scale, these are outweighed by the need for more spacious housing and the parents’ greater difficulties taking paid employment. Arguments about “incentivising” poor people to have large families do not seem to occur in such countries. A government’s business, it is agreed, is to ensure adequate living standards for all children.

Osborne says jobless families should weigh up the costs of extra children as families in employment do, though I am not aware of research demonstrating a difference between the two groups in the weighing up that goes on. I wonder if the Tories who applaud this proposal are the same as those who want to slash the time limit for abortions.

Without benefits

Is it really possible to take a GCSE in claiming benefits? The allegation comes from, among others, the Prime Minister, the Daily Mail and, most recently, the Tory journalist (and founder of one of Michael Gove’s free schools) Toby Young, writing in a magazine of which the name escapes me. The admirable website fullfact. org, funded by charitable trusts, investigated. It found that a certificate in personal effectiveness, awarded as a BTEC – a vocational qualification equivalent to a GCSE – indeed invites candidates to “find out what benefits you are entitled to if you are unemployed”. They can then either discuss “how you would feel if you found yourself in this situation” or produce an information sheet to help others. But this is one optional task (out of 10) in one optional section (out of three) in one optional module (out of 12) on “communication”. (Other modules include “work related learning and enterprise” and “citizenship and community”.) Candidates could get 1.7 per cent of their marks from the benefits task. To say, as Young did, that you can get a GCSE in claiming the dole is like saying you can get an A-level in fascism because the syllabus includes an option on 20th-century Italian history.

Young remains unrepentant – or at least, only partly repentant. Writing in that magazine again (still can’t remember its name), he argues he’s entitled to “a bit of hyperbole”, which is “a stock-in-trade of Fleet Street col - umnists”. As they say in exam questions, discuss with examples.

All about the Benjamins

Disraeli’s Manchester speech in 1872, only yards from where Ed Miliband launched his own version of “one nation” politics, isn’t much of an inspiration for the left, being mostly a defence of the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established Church. But one soundbite bears repeating. Disraeli said the Liberals (as they then were) once “held out hopes to the working classes” but, when in office, “they laughed their vows to scorn”.

Faulty towers

What is it about English hotels? Last month, my wife and I stayed in a hotel in Lyme Regis that, in many respects, was more than acceptable: 17th-century building, warm bedrooms, friendly staff, excellent food. But details were irritatingly wrong. It advertised, for example, four-poster bedrooms, which, it turned out, comprised four poles sticking up from each corner of the bed, as if the owners had been defeated by an MFI assembly job.

What best summed up the hotel was a notice chalked on a blackboard outside throughout the last week of an unusually cool September. “Hot and thirsty? Come inside and have an ICE-COLD drink.”

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 15 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, India special