How to get ahead in journalism, the meaning of trust and Nadine Dorries’s brain

Stop press. Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, has rejected a resignation offer from George Entwistle, the director general. Entwistle in turn has declined the resignation of Liz Gibbons, the Newsnight editor responsible for the story that falsely accused Lord McAlpine of child abuse.

No, that isn’t what happened and you can imagine the outrage from newspapers if it had. Yet it is roughly what happened at the Daily Mail in 1977. Consumed by its hatred for the Labour government (just as the BBC, according to the Mail, is now consumed by its hatred for That - cherite Tories such as McAlpine), it reported that the state-owned car-maker British Leyland, with written permission from Lord Ryder, chairman of the National Enterprise Board, had used a “slush fund” to bribe agents so it could sell its products abroad. “No ifs and buts,” the Mail thundered. “Lord Ryder must go.”

The story, it turned out, was based on a forged letter Ryder had supposedly sent to Leyland’s chief executive. David English, the Mail editor, offered to resign but Lord Rothermere, the proprietor, told him to stay. Stewart Steven, the associate editor who oversaw the libellous story, also offered to resign but English rejected this.

English, knighted in 1982, went on to edit the Mail until 1992, when he became chairman and editor-in-chief of its parent company. Steven – who at the Daily Express in 1972 wrongly reported that Hitler’s deputy Martin Bormann was alive and well in South America –went on to edit the Mail on Sundayand the Evening Standard. At the latter, he printed an article critical of Tony Blair, then the opposition leader, allegedly by Bryan Gould, a former Labour frontbencher. It was actually written by the teenage son of Michael Howard, then home secretary.

I could produce a long list of newspaper editors who failed to resign over outrageous libels and other egregious errors and a much shorter list of those who did resign. I can give no examples of newspapers that allowed their employees to make such a fool of the boss (as John Humphrys did of Entwistle on Radio 4’s Today programme) that he had to leave his job within hours. Poor Entwistle may reflect that he worked at the wrong time in the wrong media organisation.

Going rogue

The BBC, it is said, has lost trust and that is a bad thing. It depends on what you mean by trust. Our largest-circulation newspaper, the Sun, is trusted to provide exciting headlines, gripping stories and bare-breasted lovelies. Yet I do not think it is trusted to tell the whole truth or anything resembling it. The local and regional press, which has worked hard to keep “community trust”, has suffered a steeper decline than the cynics of Fleet Street.

A while ago, the BBC was said to have lost trust over rigged polls and competitions on television, yet it is still there, as are the viewers for the competitions. Trust is supposedly important for politicians, too. That makes it hard to explain why Richard Nixon, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, all widely regarded as liars, won so many elections while Michael Foot, John Major and William Hague, widely praised as straight and honest men, won so few. As for Boris Johnson, trust hardly belongs in the same sentence. The truth is that, in the media, as in politics, people prefer rogues to saints.

Bird on the wire

Despite David Dimbleby’s denials, I am not entirely convinced that his interview with Humphrys wasn’t a bid for the top job. The message was clear: the BBC is choked by managers who speak gobbledegook, play the system and keep away from trouble. He, Dimbleby, on the other hand, had worked in news, made films and covered big events.

Dimbleby is 74 and says it would be “against the rules” for him to become director general. Rules, however, can be changed or waived. Asked if Patten should stay, Dimbleby said he should, because he was “a shrewd old bird”. Will Patten, 68, now appoint an even older and shrewder bird?

Lines of symmetry

Perhaps being called “director general” causes people to lose all touch with reality. John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, argues in the Times: “We now need to draw a line under PPI [payment protection insurance, which the banks missold to millions].” The government should set a date after which any further claims for compensation may be refused.

Could the banks, in return, draw a line under mortgage repayments instead of repossessing homes? Would the power companies, as a gesture of goodwill on behalf of the corporate sector, mind drawing a line under fuel bills instead of cutting off supplies?

Brain drain

Human beings are becoming more stupid, according to a scientist at Stanford University in California, because they no longer live in the wild, needing to keep their wits about them. If so, Nadine Dorries will presumably return from the jungle with a bigger brain. Which won’t help her with the Tory whips, who don’t like clever people.


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 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.