Cover-ups, conspiracies and why journalists should sometimes break the law

Peter Wilby's First Thoughts column.

When he set up a committee on smog in 1952, Harold Macmillan, then the local government minister, said: “We cannot do very much, but we can seem to be very busy.” I suspect it is in the same spirit that David Cameron has set up two new inquiries – one of them into an earlier inquiry, which is surely a first of some kind – regarding allegations of abuse at children’s homes in north Wales.

Almost every instance of mass abuse at such homes – in Jersey, Leicestershire and Belfast, as well as north Wales – has been accompanied by claims that prominent public figures were involved as members of “paedophile rings”. None has been substantiated, but details still lurk on the internet. Those named include several former Tory cabinet ministers and one deceased prime minister, though it isn’t always clear whether they are accused of actual abuse or just helping to cover it up. Freemasons, MI5 and Downing Street “strong rooms”, said to hold the only copies of incriminating documents, put in frequent appearances. Several “mystery deaths”, including that of Stephen Milligan, a Tory MP who expired in 1994 while apparently engaged in erotic acts with an electric cord and an orange, are connected to the scandals. As for the late Sir Ronald Waterhouse, who led the north Wales inquiry, his failure to expose the truth is easily explained: he was “a Masonic paedophile judge”.

While some are convinced the north Wales scandal went much wider (and higher) than we were told, others are equally convinced of the opposite: the late Richard Webster, an occasional NS contributor, published a 700-page book arguing that several men were wrongly convicted. I was on the receiving end of two expensive libel writs, one from each side in the argument (probably a unique distinction), so I shall say no more. Conspiracy theories usually turn out to be wrong. But conspiracies sometimes happen, as Cameron no doubt reflected when he announced his inquiries on 5 November.

It’s all Gover

Nobody seems to have noticed, but the whole basis of Michael Gove’s education policies has been undermined. Andrew Dilnot, chair of the UK Statistics authority, has written to the Department for Education pointing out that claims of a decline in English children’s international test results since 2000 are not “robust”, which is statistician-speak for “complete nonsense”. Given that Gove quotes those results to justify everything he does, will he now drop his plans to introduce “free schools”, abolish GCSEs and bring back the curriculum of 50 years ago? Or, better still, resign in shame at misleading the public?

Dead wood

Our political leaders present globalisation as a win-win. The threat to British trees illustrates its downsides. Britain is hardly short of trees. If we want log fires, wooden structures or new trees, we have enough wood and seeds of our own. But globalisation requires that, if wood is cheaper abroad or we are short of acorns this year, we must import. This is apparently dictated not just by commercial imperatives but by international trade agreements. So whole forests will now be wrecked by imported pests to which they have no resistance. My science education stopped at O-level, but this looks to me like simple biology. Why do politicians persist in ignoring straightforward science?

The unprofessional

Should one support statutory underpinning to press regulation? I am instinctively suspicious of anything that tries to regularise press behaviour. Journalists should not strive for respect - ability or the kind of professional status that doctors and lawyers enjoy. They should operate on the margins of society, and sometimes beyond the law.

What will push me into the Hacked Off campaigners’ camp is the newspapers’ special pleading. For example, they make the laughable claim that fear of the Leveson inquiry prevented them from exposing the BBC’s decision to drop a report about Jimmy Savile’s abusive behaviour. The Mail on Sunday argues that, because the now-disgraced Labour MP Denis MacShane accused it of “intrusion” when it investigated his parliamentary expenses (well, he would, wouldn’t he?), stronger regulation would prevent similar exposés in future. The abiding sin of the cheap newspapers is their inability to distinguish between what is important and necessary and what is trivial and gratuitous. Anything that helps them make this distinction should be welcomed.

False economies

“Disgraced”. How sad to use that adjective about my old friend MacShane, himself a journalist by trade and not the first to get in a tangle by using creative accounting (or, as he puts it, claiming “under the wrong heading”) in his expenses. He says he was distracted by writing “hundreds of articles”. That at least will be true. When I edited the NS, scarcely a week passed without an early-morning visit from a breathless MacShane, bearing an 800-word offering fresh from his computer. It was invariably unexceptionable, but not exceptional. I don’t think I published any, and he didn’t seem to expect me to. At least he didn’t claim expenses.

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.

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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.