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1 July 2020

First Thoughts: Murdoch’s new radio station, traditional classroom seating and taking a DNA test

With Times Radio, Rupert Murdoch hopes to entice listeners to subscribe to the Times. And he can pursue his vendetta against the BBC.

By Peter Wilby

Rupert Murdoch’s intentions are often mysterious, perhaps even to him. That is particularly true of his latest venture, Times Radio, now broadcasting 20 hours daily on DAB and online. Though it seeks sponsorship for programmes, it promises no ads, no charges to the listener, no “adversarial” interviews and no phone-ins. Yet it has expensive recruits, including Mariella Frostrup, Michael Portillo and the former BBC political correspondent John Pienaar, and an estimated £3m annual budget.

So what’s in it for Murdoch? First, he hopes to entice listeners into subscribing to the Times, which, because it has a strict paywall, is almost invisible online. Second, he can pursue his vendetta against the BBC, which he sees as a state-funded monolith allowed, as his son James once put it, to “throttle” the UK news market. The PM shares that view. For Times Radio’s launch, Boris Johnson gave an interview at 8am, the time of day when Radio 4’s Today programme usually broadcasts extended ministerial interviews.

Radio 4’s tyically middle-class listeners would feel bereft if Johnson threatened its survival by cutting the BBC’s funds. But what if an alternative becomes established?

Eyes front, children

When children return to school, they should face the front and “pay attention to the teacher”, the Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, tells Tory back-benchers. This, he says, is “the common-sense approach”. Children sitting round tables, facing each other, is “wrong”.

Even after the national curriculum was introduced in the 1980s, governments initially dictated only what children should be taught, not how. But ministers, allied with Ofsted inspectors, now specify teaching methods too: for example, “phonics” rather than “look-and-say” when children learn to read. Imposing traditional classroom seating is another step along that road. The only thing stopping the return of corporal punishment is probably the PM’s fear that the cane, like a cricket ball, would be “a natural vector” for disease.

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Born identity

Prompted by my son, I recently took a DNA test. The results astonished me. From what I knew of my family history – and from a family tree researched by my son – I thought my background was wholly white British, with names such as Harris, King and Audley, as well as Wilby, abounding.

But according to DNA analysis from the Ancestry website, less than half of me is British. I am nearly a quarter Italian, 10 per cent Middle Eastern and 6 per cent Jewish. My son uploaded my DNA data to a different website. The results are even stranger. They say I am only 5.5 per cent British. The rest of me is southern European (40.3 per cent), Scandinavian (25.6 per cent), African (nearly 9 per cent), Middle Eastern and Jewish (about 6 per cent each). I feel an identity crisis coming on – and an urge to check my personal records lest the government questions my right to be in the country at all.

Tangled trees

National and racial analysis of DNA is an inexact science. Results differ because websites have different databases to derive their estimates. More reliable are the DNA matches between me and others who have taken tests. These involve names I have never heard of and which appear nowhere in my family tree. The large majority – distant cousins, if that – share less than 1 per cent of my DNA. But some share 10 per cent or much more.

Family trees depend on the accuracy of official records, particularly birth certificates naming parents who, until recently, were nearly always married. DNA matches reveal a messier reality. At least one relatively recent birth certificate used to compile my tree almost certainly contains false information. But that’s a story for another day. Research is ongoing.

Mind your language

Those sensitive TV viewers offended by swearing – to whom football commentators apologise when players’ oaths become audible on air – now have their own service: a channel with artificial crowd noise. So why, on its “reality” channel, does BT Sport still make on-screen apologies for “inappropriate language”? 

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This article appears in the 01 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Anatomy of a crisis