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1 April 2016

At the Independent leaving do, some ex-editors were looking surprisingly cheerful

The Indie’s cheerful mourners, teachers’ colour pens, and why the Tories will spoil your dinner.

By Peter Wilby

Only current staff and former editors of the daily and Sunday papers were invited to the Independent’s farewell-to-print party at the Royal Garden Hotel in Kensington, west London. As there were 18 different editors, lasting 3.11 years each on average (17 months in my case), I jokingly wondered if the latter would outnumber the former. I left the party early but, by then, I had spotted only three other ex-editors. They looked indecently cheerful, I reflected later. Most editors were sacked because circulation was falling and they would be less than human not to feel, as I am ashamed to admit I did, a smidgen of satisfaction that it fell further and faster after they left.


Feedback loop

The Department for Education has set up a committee to decide which colour pens teachers should use when marking children’s work. Yes, the cover date is 1 April and that’s a joke. But only just. Between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, the department released the report of its marking policy review group. It warned that “extensive written comments in different colour pens” was an example of “an excessive reliance on . . . labour-intensive practices”.

The group, comprising 15 people, deliberated for six months. Its main recommendation is that all marking “should be meaningful, manageable and motivating”. It issues, as official bodies usually do nowadays, a “challenge”: “If your current approach is unmanageable or disproportionate, stop it.” So that’s settled, then.

Why are such injunctions necessary? The reason is that, many years ago, complaints from parents and inspectors that some teachers at some schools were neglecting their marking led the government and Ofsted to issue the stern opinion that “pupil feedback”, to use the fashionable term, was important. An industry developed around “assessment for learning” (the idea that pupils’ work should not be greeted with mere ticks, crosses and grades but with suggestions as to how it could be improved) and somebody invented “deep marking”, which entails children writing back to their teacher to say what they think about the suggestions.

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Governments now involve themselves in education to that level of detail. But if they are serious about cutting public spending, they would do well to start by withdrawing from areas in which they have no business to meddle.


Poultry reasons

Most teachers, supervised by competent heads, can surely be trusted to do the basics of their job adequately. If they don’t, nobody dies, or even gets stomach ache. The same is not true of the food industry, which has a poor record in safety and animal welfare.

During the Tories’ last long spell in power, from 1979 to the late 1990s, the industry was extensively deregulated. Scandals over salmonella in eggs, BSE in cattle and swine flu in pigs duly followed. After another spell of Tory deregulation – begun, to be fair, by New Labour – and cuts in meat hygiene inspection, it emerged in late 2014 that eight out of ten supermarket chickens were contaminated. Now ministers propose to scrap the official code on chicken farming and leave regulation to the industry.

Voters should learn the lesson: Tories may cut your taxes but they will eventually poison you.


Before Hillary

Many New Statesman readers will hope that Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination and goes on to the White House. If they are feminists, they may think the arguments for Hillary Clinton are stronger, despite her failings. The US presidency is a glass ceiling that women haven’t broken.

Although many women have entered primary elections – and several the presidential race as candidates for minor parties – no woman before Clinton came anywhere near winning the nomination of either major party. In 1964, Margaret Chase Smith got as far as the Republican National Convention, winning 27 delegates’ votes, but she lost every primary election on the way there. Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman elected to the US Congress, did better at the 1972 Democratic convention, getting 152 votes, most of them because another candidate, the former vice-president Hubert Humphrey, released his black delegates to her as a symbolic gesture after his defeat became inevitable. Before 2008, that was as good as it got for American women.

Democrats may like to note that, in both 1964 and 1972, the parties that rejected women went on to landslide defeats.


Harold Evans’s war

To the Hackney Picturehouse in east London to see Attacking the Devil, a documentary film about the Sunday Times campaign in the 1970s, led by its then editor, Harold Evans, to get justice for the victims of thalidomide. The drug, prescribed to pregnant women, caused birth deformities in at least 10,000 children across the world, of whom only half survived.

Most commentary on the film suggests that such prolonged investigative journalism would now be impossible. That may be true but nobody should underestimate the difficulties at the time. These included not just the expense and the legal obstacles but also, in the early stages particularly, the widespread disapproval. The Sunday Telegraph columnist Peregrine Worsthorne called the campaign “nauseating”. The Oxford historian A J P Taylor said that it exploited popular feeling in the Goebbels style.

At the Observer, where I then worked, little was said in print but I recall at least one senior editor deploring Evans’s “vendetta” against Distillers, the British manufacturer of thalidomide, which led to a boycott of its products, mainly Scotch whisky.

I urge you to see this film if you can. If you worry about shedding tears publicly – and it will be hard not to – focus for a while on the footage of 1970s haircuts and hacks struggling with typewriters. 

This article appears in the 30 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The terror trail