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Leveson's problem, modal verbs and bills, bills, bills

Ministers’ appearances before the Leveson inquiry, like the opening matches of international football competitions, nearly always fail to match expectations. Each time, we anticipate ministerial embarrassment, even humiliation, as, under oath, they admit that they did their utmost to placate Rupert Murdoch. But avoiding direct questions, deflecting criticism and putting one’s own actions in the best possible light are the supreme political skills. So it was with George Osborne. Nothing could have been further from his mind, when he proposed recruiting the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson, than Coulson’s close connections with News International. He “didn’t have a view” about the merits of Murdoch’s takeover of BSkyB. Well, what did we expect him to say?

We knew before the inquiry that Murdoch had the British political class in his pocket. But Leveson cannot produce a smoking gun that implicates any individual minister. Even Frédéric Michel’s email exchanges with Jeremy Hunt’s aide Adam Smith didn’t have the Media Secretary’s own fingerprints on them. What we need is a letter, text, email or recording in which, say, David Cameron tells Murdoch: “It’s a deal, boss – help us win the election and we’ll see you right.” No such thing exists and if it did, Cameron wouldn’t have set up the inquiry.

A case of the verbals

Do you know what a “modal verb” is? Nor I, at least until I started writing this column. Then I looked at Michael Gove’s proposals for
a new national curriculum which demand that ten-year-olds not only use such verbs correctly (they include “can”, “could”, “shall”, “will”, “must” and “might”), but also use the correct technical term for them.

The Education Secretary also wants five-year-olds to learn poetry by heart and recite it, eight-year-olds to learn the rules for adding suffixes and prefixes, and nine-year-olds to ensure that “the ascenders and descenders of letters do not touch”.

It seems extraordinary that an education secretary should lay out in such detail what teachers should cover and that so much of the
content should seem irrelevant to the world outside school. After all, except at the theatre, children do not often hear adults declaiming poetry – the last time I heard it done was 20 years ago when I lunched with the late Kingsley Amis at the Garrick Club – and few people now write anything other than shopping lists by hand. But Gove is clearly convinced that, if we revive the 1950s prep school curriculum, all will be well.

Poor performance

When he has finished explaining how to teach poetry and grammar, Gove should attend to a report just out from London University’s Institute of Education. After studying more than 8,000 children born in 2000-2001, it concludes that, whatever parents do in the way of reading to their children or taking them to the library, poverty depresses cognitive development from birth. By the age of seven, children in persistent poverty will, on average, lag ten percentile ranks (on a scale from 0 to 100) behind their peers.

I hope (but do not expect) that Gove will understand that, unless he and his fellow ministers tackle poverty, they are wasting their time setting up new schools, fiddling with the curriculum and announcing their intolerance of failure. Poverty is the biggest single cause of failure and its effects can be only partly ameliorated by better schools and parenting skills. By far the most effective (and least costly) education policy, poetry or no poetry, is to reduce and, if possible, abolish poverty.

Brought to book

State-of-the-nation books rarely read well 25 years on and I admit to scepticism when my old friend Robert Chesshyre, a former Observer reporter, said he was reissuing a book he wrote in 1987 after returning from four years in Washington. Then called The Return of a Native Reporter, it was a devastating portrait of the social dislocations of Thatcher’s Britain. Now it appears, with a new foreword, under the title When the Iron Lady Ruled Britain and, astonishingly, it reads as though it were written yesterday. The hot topics then, as now, were declining manufacturing industry, mounting debt, City fat cats, urban riots, the underclass, failing state comprehensives and small business’s struggles to get bank finance. And yet, for more than half the intervening quarter-century, we had Labour governments with handsome majorities. I can think of no greater indictment of Tony Blair and New Labour.

Water carve-up

Thames Water informs me that my monthly direct debit is to increase by 179 per cent. I ring and point out that my last bill (I am on a water meter) showed me nearly £50 in credit. Aha, replies my friendly neighbourhood water supplier (largely owned by an Australian bank), your old monthly payment was unusually low because, a few years back, you were even more in credit.

When I look at old bills, a pattern emerges. Every few years, Thames Water roughly trebles my monthly payment so that, soon after, I am substantially in credit. It then graciously pays back what it owes me by lowering the payment until, when the credit has almost run out, it nearly trebles the payment again.

The loss to me – from not earning interest on the money I am owed – is trivial, but an average of £50 credit multiplied across the company’s 8.8 million customers would profit Thames Water by about £20m annually. Set against that, the £843,000 paid for the past financial year to its chief executive, Martin Baggs, must seem a snip.

After my call, the company generously agrees that my monthly charge should rise by a mere 100 per cent. This, I suppose, is an example of the customer power bestowed by privatisation.

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 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare