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Alan Rusbridger on paywalls, funding schemes and the future of the media

My week, from tackling elitism at Oxford to a lecture on the Panama Papers.

Lord Patten, I read in the Telegraph, thinks that universities “cannot accept more ethnic minority students without eroding standards”. Did the chancellor of Oxford University really say that? It turns out: no. The Telegraph later corrected the story. Chris Patten believes that high-class universities should not “lower their standards in order to make up for some inadequacies in our secondary education system”. Not the same thing.

I’ve been in Oxford now for just over seven months as principal of Lady Margaret Hall (LMH), the first college to admit an excluded sector of society – women. There were quite a few who thought that LMH would lower Oxford’s standards when it was founded in 1878. We recently announced that we are creating a foundation year to encourage other people who probably feel excluded from Oxford to come here. We will open our doors this autumn.

Will we be dropping our standards? I rather doubt it. I’ve spent quite a lot of time in recent weeks in comprehensives and sixth-form colleges that rarely, if ever, send their students to Oxford. The young people I’ve met seem remarkably bright, motivated and well informed. To most of them, it was a novel idea either that Oxford might be interested in them or vice versa.

 

Estranged twins

An Oxford education is, rightly, extremely sought after. But we shouldn’t assume that everyone thinks so. The schools I’ve been in have been assiduously courted by UCL, King’s College London, Manchester, Warwick and others. One – twinned with a Cambridge college – had never managed to send a pupil there. Two others had got only one child into Oxbridge in a generation. The teachers were ridiculously proud.

I asked one head how many of his students didn’t have English as a first language. “Ninety-eight per cent,” he said, beaming. He’d evidently seen my reaction before. He countered: “Isn’t that wonderful? It means they’re all the most brilliant linguists.”

We are partnering with Trinity College Dublin (TCD) for our foundation year. It has been running a similar scheme for the past 17 years and has a wealth of data to show that it works. There is also another link with TCD: it used to offer degrees to LMH women who, for more than 30 years, were denied honours by Oxford. The would-be graduates travelled across the Irish Sea to   pick up their certificates and were known as the steamboat ladies. In telling me the story, the TCD provost confessed that it was also
a nice little earner.

 

Knives out for the Beeb

Is there an economic model for serious news? Let’s hope so – but the gales blowing through my old industry are now truly frightening. When I stepped down from the Guardian just over a year ago, my Guardian Media Group colleagues were happy to go on the record to emphasise their confidence in increasing digital revenues and a future based on growth. But something profound and alarming has been happening in recent months and all our eyes ought to be on the West Coast giants – especially, but not only, Facebook – that are cleaning up quite extraordinarily.

There is only one truly proven business model for serious general news – that of the BBC. Yes, it sometimes infuriates me, too. But it is an astonishingly wide-ranging, accurate and ethical institution that (to quote Chris Patten again) ought, in any sane world, to be listed, not cut.

But many people today clearly find organisations that are not primarily driven by profit beyond comprehension. What would they make of the Scott family, who could have been multimillionaires but decided instead, back in 1936, to give away the Manchester Guardian for a quid? They placed the Guardian into a trust because its greatest editor, C P Scott, saw it as a public good, or even a moral force, rather than an engine of profit or personal gain.

For most of its 195-year life, the Guardian has struggled to make money – just as the Observer has probably not turned a profit since its principled stand over Suez in 1956. Quite often (as today), the Guardian has lost more than it should, or could, in any given year. Clearly, the business model needs to change. But looking around the world, I don’t think that anyone can truthfully claim to have cracked it.

Meanwhile there are still, notwithstanding a relatively muted white paper, numerous knives out for the poor old BBC. Its unforgivable crime seems to be to have a business model that still – sort of – works.

 

Away from the desk

Do I miss editing? Not much: at least in the sense of stumbling out of bed and wondering how many emails would have arrived overnight from Carter-Ruck or Schillings.

But listening to my former colleague Luke Harding describe to a spellbound Reuters Institute seminar at Nuffield College in Oxford last week how the Guardian and Süddeutsche Zeitung (and others) rather brilliantly pulled off the Panama Papers story did provoke a twinge of journalistic adrenalin. Or, to put it another way, jealousy.

 

Bright future

In Harding’s audience was Roger Bannister, the first man (in 1954) to break four min-utes for a mile. A couple of days earlier, I sat next to the US secretary of state, John Kerry, as he spoke extraordinarily openly (and off the record) at St Antony’s College. The previous week, the Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus lectured at LMH – and was mobbed by students wanting selfies afterwards. That’s the kind of place Oxford is. Which is why those of us who are lucky enough to be here should be burning with an ambition to make it open to the brightest and best – regardless of the obstacles that they may have had to overcome on the way. And watch us raise our standards as we achieve that.

Alan Rusbridger is a former editor of the Guardian and principal of Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster

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Senior Labour and Liberal Democrat politicians call for a progressive alliance

As Brexit gets underway, opposition grandees urge their parties – Labour, Lib Dems, the SNP and Greens – to form a pact.

A number of senior Labour and opposition politicians are calling for a cross-party alliance. In a bid to hold the Conservative government to account as Brexit negotiations kick off, party grandees are urging their leaders to put party politics to one side and work together.

The former Labour minister Chris Mullin believes that “the only way forward” is “an eventual pact between Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens not to oppose each other in marginal seats”. 

“Given the loss of Scotland, it will be difficult for any party that is not the Conservative party to form a government on its own in the foreseeable future," Mullin argues, but he admits, “no doubt tribalists on both sides will find this upsetting” and laments that, “it may take three or four election defeats for the penny to drop”.

But there are other Labour and Liberal grandees who are envisaging such a future for Britain’s progressive parties.

The Lib Dem peer and former party leader Ming Campbell predicts that “there could be some pressure” after the 2020 election for Labour MPs to look at “SDP Mark II”, and reveals, “a real sense among the left and the centre-left that the only way Conservative hegemony is going to be undermined is for a far higher degree of cooperation”.

The Gang of Four’s David Owen, a former Labour foreign secretary who co-founded the SDP, warns Labour that it must “face up to reality” and “proudly and completely coherently” agree to work with the SNP.

“It is perfectly legitimate for the Labour party to work with them,” he tells me. “We have to live with that reality. You have to be ready to talk to them. You won’t agree with them on separation but you can agree on many other areas, or you certainly should be trying.”

The Labour peer and former home secretary Charles Clarke agrees that Labour must “open up an alliance with the SNP” on fighting for Britain to remain in the single market, calling it “an opportunity that’s just opened”. He criticises his party for having “completely failed to deal with how we relate to the SNP” during the 2015 election campaign, saying, “Ed Miliband completely messed that up”.

“The SNP will still be a big factor after the 2020 general election,” Clarke says. “Therefore we have to find a way to deal with them if we’re interested in being in power after the election.”

Clarke also advises his party to make pacts with the Lib Dems ahead of the election in individual constituencies in the southwest up to London.

“We should help the Lib Dems to win some of those seats, a dozen of those seats back from the Tories,” he argues. “I think a seat-by-seat examination in certain seats which would weaken the Tory position is worth thinking about. There are a few seats where us not running – or being broadly supportive of the Lib Dems – might reduce the number of Tory seats.”

The peer and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown agrees that such cooperation could help reduce the Tory majority. When leader, he worked informally in the Nineties with then opposition leader Tony Blair to coordinate their challenge to the Conservative government.

“We’re quite like we were in 1992 when Tony Blair and I started working together but with bells on,” Ashdown tells me. “We have to do something quite similar to what Blair and I did, we have to create the mood of a sort of space, where people of an intelligent focus can gather – I think this is going to be done much more organically than organisationally.”

Ashdown describes methods of cooperation, including the cross-party Cook-Maclennan Agreement on constitutional reform, uniting on Scottish devolution, a coordinated approach to PMQs, and publishing a list 50 constituencies in the Daily Mirror before the 1997 election, outlining seats where Labour and Lib Dem voters should tactically vote for one another to defeat Tory candidates.

“We created the climate of an expectation of cooperation,” Ashdown recalls. Pursuing the spirit of this time, he has set up a movement called More United, which urges cross-party support of candidates and campaigns that subscribe to progressive values.

He reveals that “Tory Central Office are pretty hostile to the idea, Mr Corbyn is pretty hostile to the idea”, but there are Conservative and Labour MPs who are “talking about participating in the process”.

Indeed, my colleague George reveals in his report for the magazine this week that a close ally of George Osborne has approached the Lib Dem leader Tim Farron about forming a new centrist party called “The Democrats”. It’s an idea that the former chancellor had reportedly already pitched to Labour MPs.

Labour peer and former cabinet minister Tessa Jowell says this is “the moment” to “build a different kind of progressive activism and progressive alliance”, as people are engaging in movements more than parties. But she says politicians should be “wary of reaching out for what is too easily defined as an elite metropolitan solution which can also be seen as simply another power grab”.

She warns against a “We’re going to have a new party, here’s the board, here’s the doorplate, and now you’re invited to join” approach. “Talk of a new party is for the birds without reach and without groundedness – and we have no evidence of that at the moment.”

A senior politician who wished not to be named echoes Jowell’s caution. “The problem is that if you’re surrounded by a group of people who think that greater cooperation is necessary and possible – people who all think the same as you – then there’s a terrible temptation to think that everyone thinks the same as you,” they say.

They warn against looking back at the “halcyon days” of Blair’s cooperation with the Lib Dems. “It’s worth remembering they fell out eventually! Most political marriages end in divorce, don’t they?”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.