Jimmy Savile’s “innocence”, Rio and racism and next-day deliveries

Peter Wilby's "First Thoughts" column.

During the hacking scandal, it emerged that James Murdoch failed to ask why the News of the World was paying £720,000 to Gordon Taylor of the Professional Footballers’ Association. Now we learn that George Entwistle, now the BBC director general, was told last year in a previous role about a Newsnight investigation into Jimmy Savile but considered it below his pay grade to ask what it was about or how it might affect a planned Christmas tribute to the late presenter. The former director general Mark Thompson reveals that he, too, was informed that he should be “worried” about an investigation but sought no further details.

It seems also that most bank bosses failed to ask any questions about what their traders were up to in the run-up to the financial crisis. Is incuriosity a qualification for high office? Or is there some management course that teaches bosses not to enquire what their subordinates are doing? Perhaps history misjudged the emperor Nero. During the Great Fire of Rome, he didn’t ask why he could smell burning because, following recommendations from management consultants, he was scrupulously observing what Entwistle calls “chains of command”.

Hero to zero

In a study of celebrity, Savile would be a telling case : a man of zero talent who, through careful image manipulation, made himself a radio and TV personality. People “knew” a bighearted, if eccentric, man who loved children (in the innocent sense) and worked tirelessly for charity. Now they “know” he was a ruthless, serial child abuser. Yet the second image, created in recent days by an overexcited media, may prove as false as the first. No evidence has been tested in a court of law. Once, children were almost universally treated, not exactly as liars, but as fantasists whose word was not to be trusted. Now, not only are children deemed incapable of untruths, so are adults when they claim childhood memories.

Savile is not the first to be catapulted posthumously from adored celebrity to despised anticelebrity. The alleged treatment of children often prompts the transformation: think of Bing Crosby or Enid Blyton, though they at least had tangible talents that survive them. The truth is that we never “know” celebrities we have not met and it is very silly of us to think we do.

Stand and deliver

Ofcom, which is supposed to regulate in the interests of consumers, has aired the idea that the Royal Mail should drop next-day deliveries. Yet first-class mail currently accounts for well over half the total. Why should the Royal Mail drop the service for which customers pay a substantial premium?

Answer: an end to next-day deliveries would leave a lucrative market open for the private sector. Even Margaret Thatcher dared not nationalise a public service that will celebrate its 500th anniversary in 2016, and this government is in no position to take such a step. But it can whittle down the Royal Mail until it becomes hopelessly uneconomic, with only the old, the sentimental and the geographically isolated using it. Why is Ofcom helping? Colette Bowe, its chairman, is also chair of Electra Private Equity. No conflict of interest, but such people have instinctive sympathy for ideas that create new opportunities for private capital.

Fergie’s wrong

In football, as in other sports, managers and coaches tell players not only what to do on the field, but also what to eat, wear, say and think. In a way, that’s right, because professional sportsmen are so focused from an early age on the skills needed to succeed in their chosen game that they miss the normal stages of adolescent social development. The trouble is that their bosses are nearly always ex-players and therefore equally underdeveloped.

Alex Ferguson, once a shipyard shop steward, didn’t become a full-time professional footballer until he was 22, which partly explains his managerial success. Yet even he fails to understand how preposterous it is for a white boss to tell Rio Ferdinand, a mixed-race player, that he had best fight racism by wearing a T-shirt. It requires a mighty leap of the imagination for any white person to grasp what racism means to a non-white. Racism is the product of historically rooted relationships of economic and social dominance, which is why there can be no such thing as a white victim of racism and certainly no analogy with people who suffer “banter” for being too fat or too ginger. Ferdinand may not put it like that but he understands it in his bones. His opinion, and those of other non-white players, are therefore the only ones worth considering. Until football acknowledges that, it will fail to stamp out racism, T-shirts or no T-shirts.

When Saturday comes

The weirdness of sporting authorities brings us naturally to the England and Wales Cricket Board, which has announced that, from 2014, no (or hardly any) first-class county matches will be played on Saturdays.

Perhaps the board has been studying the game’s history. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, Saturday was the least common day for playing any sport. Before the standard working week, employees received wages and businesses settled their accounts on a Saturday. Even Saturday marriages were rare; most cricket matches started on Mondays.

Evelyn Waugh complained the Conservatives never turned the clock back a single second. The cricket board, by contrast, cheerfully reverses the clock by two centuries.

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 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten

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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.