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4 December 2013

The “murder“ of Stephen Ward, a prize reporter’s courage and Boris the buffoon

Boris Johnson used the third Margaret That­cher Memorial Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in London to make a fool of himself, and the results of the British Journalism Awards would be hard to disagree with.

By Peter Wilby

I usually take a jaundiced view of journalists’ awards ceremonies, being of the opinion that readers’ appreciation should be sufficient reward for mere hacks. But at least the British Journalism Awards (not to be confused with the British Press Awards, though the differences are as arcane as those between various Maoist sects) gave prizes mostly to the right people this year.

Many who attended the ceremony at Stationers’ Hall in London expressed surprise that the Guardian didn’t win awards for the “Snowden files”, its exposé of surveillance by GCHQ and America’s National Security Agency. Instead, Michael Gillard won Investigation of the Year and Journalist of the Year for his Sunday Times exposure of the violent gang leader David Hunt, whom the Metropolitan Police found “too big for them”.

Guardian journalists may have risked pro­secution but Gillard risked his life and it was hard to argue with the judges’ verdict.

Playing the fool again

Boris Johnson used the third Margaret That­cher Memorial Lecture at the Centre for Policy Studies in London to make a fool of himself, which is always to be welcomed. But perhaps a left-wing think tank should start a rival Thatcher memorial lecture. It would point out that her achievements, described by Johnson as “colossal” and “irreversible”, are in fact unravelling.

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For instance, according to Johnson, she “introduced millions of people to the satisfaction of owning their own home”. This is the biggest Thatcher myth. Home ownership rose from 57 per cent in 1981, when selling off council homes began, to 67 per cent in 1991. This simply continued a trend that started in 1918; there was a bigger leap, in a shorter time, between 1953 and 1961. Now the proportion of homeowners has fallen back to 65 per cent.

About a third of the council homes sold are owned by private landlords. People who once would have rented from local authorities now rent in the private sector. The rents are higher, and so (through housing benefit) are the costs to public funds.

Again, Thatcher allegedly democratised share ownership. It is true that, during the 1980s, the proportion of UK adults owning shares tripled to 15 per cent. But share ownership hasn’t widened significantly since then and the proportions are much higher in Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. More importantly, the proportion of shares (by value) owned by individuals fell from 28.2 per cent in 1981 to 10.7 per cent now. The widening of share ownership was a tokenistic exercise. Financial corporations are more in charge than ever.

However high his IQ, Johnson shouldn’t be allowed to get away with propagating disinformation about Thatcher’s legacy.

Muddle of the league

International league tables such as the ones just released about pupil performance in maths, reading and science – as usual, we Brits do badly – are, in my opinion, to be treated with scepticism. But it is always fun to find confirmation of one’s prejudices. Sweden’s free schools inspired Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, to introduce similar schools here. It’s fairly well-known – except, apparently, to Gove – that Sweden has fallen down the league tables steadily since free schools were introduced. What I didn’t know was that Swedish schools appear not to teach maths at all beyond the simplest levels.

According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Achievement (Pisa), a clear majority of Swedish 15-year-olds has never heard of exponential functions, divisors, quadratic functions, vectors, polygons, congruent figures, cosines and arithmetic means. You may not have heard of all these but, as the proud holder of A-level maths (failed), I assure you they’re pretty important. Even most Peruvians know about them.

Spooky beyond belief

Has anything ever happened that wasn’t orchestrated by MI5 or the CIA? No sooner have we been reminded of the latter’s (or was it the FBI’s?) role in John F Kennedy’s assassination than the Sunday Times reports claims that Stephen Ward, who introduced the Tory minister John Profumo to Christine Keeler, did not, as previously thought, deliberately overdose in 1963 on the last day of his trial on charges of living off immoral earnings. No, he was “fed a lethal dose of barbiturates by an MI5 agent”, named as Stanley Rytter.

Perhaps Rytter, a few months earlier, poisoned the Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell. And for all I know helped arrange the Great Train Robbery that year, too, and assisted the CIA to bump off JFK. He’s supposed to have died in the 1980s but you don’t have to believe that. He could have survived to murder David Kelly in 2003. As they say in science-fiction films, nothing is as it seems to be.