Adrian Lee: Different values from those of the BBC: The Prisoner and the “culture war” of the sixties

29 Aug

Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.

Fifty-five years ago this weekend, on Sunday 28th August 1966, a film crew started shooting the opening scenes of a new TV series for the Incorporated Television Company (ITC) in the streets of Westminster. One location on that sunny morning was the Abingdon Street underground car park on College Green, just opposite the Palace of Westminster. No casual passer-by could have then realised the political significance of the programme starting its first day of filming and few recognise even today that the resulting series, The Prisoner, represented a counterblast to the Left bias of the BBC from its independent rival in an undeclared Culture War of the 1960s.

During the 1960s BBC Drama received universal applause for crafting period costume series such as The Forsyte Saga and multiple adaptations of Charles Dickens’ novels. Whilst these productions exhibited little cultural or political bias, the BBC compensated when it came to their long-running series of The Wednesday Play (1964-1970). Here, the emphasis was placed upon miserablist, social realism and grotty “kitchen sink” settings with plots revolving around homelessness, abortion, and inequality.

Few will forget the impact of the plays Cathy Come Home and Up the Junction, which launched the career of Marxist filmmaker, Ken Loach.

Arguably the most notorious episode of The Wednesday Play was Peter Watkins’ film The War Game, which portrayed the after-effects of a nuclear strike on a home counties town. It was intentionally horrific and powerful propaganda for the unilateralist cause. At the last minute, the BBC realised they had gone too far and pulled it from the schedules, but they ensured that it was shown to invited audiences in cinemas and CND was able to obtain copies to show at public meetings across the country. It was belatedly given a full national broadcast by the BBC in 1985, at the height of CND’s campaigns against Cruise and Trident.

Over on ITV, the mission was to entertain rather than to preach. In the Sixties, ATV/ITC supremo Lew Grade had progressed from producing variety shows like Sunday Night at the Palladium to making glossy action series with his regular team of Monty Berman (Producer) and Dennis Spooner (Scriptwriter), such as The Saint, Department S, The Champions and Man in a Suitcase. Grade had the foresight to improve the visual quality of British television. Not since the Kordas’ Denham Studio days in the 1930s had there been such a will to beat Hollywood at their own game. Wobbly sets went, film studios replaced television studios, theme tunes were written by top composers Ron Grainer and Edwin Astley and all series were shot on film stock rather than videotape. Grade’s aim was to produce first-class products that could be sold worldwide and that meant that they had to be made in colour.

One of Grade’s best-selling shows was Danger Man, a conventional spy series featuring Anglo-Irish actor Patrick McGoohan. Danger Man had gone down well Stateside, but when the time came to switch to full colour production, McGoohan informed Grade that he wanted to embark upon a new venture with scriptwriter and author, George Markstein. McGoohan pitched an entirely original series to be called The Prisoner in which the hero is an intelligence officer who resigns his post and is promptly kidnapped by persons unknown. He wakes up in a mysterious Italianate coastal village (Portmeirion, North Wales). Each week the anonymous authorities controlling the village would attempt to extract information from him, whilst the hero would defy their will and try to escape. Grade was sufficiently intrigued by the idea to give this production his approval.

The Prisoner is not really a spy story at all. Once the lead character is abducted from his flat and ensconced in the village, the narrative turns into an allegory of Man versus the State, the individual against the collective. None of the inhabitants of the village have a name, only a number and CCTV cameras watch their every move. However, unlike the sort of dank and dingy hell envisaged by Huxley and Orwell, this repressive society is brilliantly colourful and superficially attractive. The village Tannoy system broadcasts the ice cream flavour of the day, there is an old people’s home, free health care, social security and a labour exchange. Ersatz lounge music is piped into the inhabitants’ comfortable homes and the village brass band plays the Radetzky March in the square. Even phoney elections are occasionally held. The message is clear: if you conform and do as you are told, you can have a whale of a time in the village. McGoohan and Markstein were making a bold libertarian statement on the limits of European Social Democracy. This series would never have been made by the BBC.

McGoohan’s character is called Number Six by the village authorities, but he continues to insist “I am not a number. I am a free man.” At one point, one of his captors, angered by his continual defiance says “You’re a wicked man. Have you no values?” Number Six replies “Different values.” The village is run by a succession of Number Twos (played by the cream of British actors of the period) who represent transitory political leaders. Number One, the ultimate authority, is never fully revealed. The Swastika or Hammer and Sickle of this totalitarian society is a canopied penny-farthing bicycle, which we find emblazoned everywhere, from public buildings to the labels on tinned food. The village streets are patrolled by a large white weather balloon, Rover, which descends upon the inhabitants and smothers them, should they dare step out of line. Finally, the village has a diverse international community of different peoples. Nothing really knits them together, save their captivity.

Filmed between 1966 and 1967 in sumptuous 35mm colour, no expense was spared on its production. After a couple of months filming on location in Portmeirion, the crew moved to the MGM film studios in Borehamwood for the interiors. It is estimated that the whole series cost over £20 million in 2021 monetary value, making it one of the most expensive British television productions. Visually, the details added by Art Director Jack Shampan are stunning. The whole village has a uniform feel and great care was taken in designing costumes and props. The studio sets of Number Two’s office and the Control Room are particularly memorable and would not be out of place in a Bond film.

Despite all the efforts that had gone into production, much of the visual effect was lost on viewers, owing to the fact that colour broadcasting had not yet started in the UK. Faced with mounting costs, Lew Grade decided to cut the series short at 17 episodes. By this time, McGoohan had fallen out with Markstein, leading to the latter’s departure. Consequently, McGoohan, by now exhausted and on the verge of a breakdown, took charge of the final four episodes, which arguably were poorly structured and carried surrealism too far. The final instalment when broadcast in 1968 led to a public outcry.

The Prisoner gained a cult status in later decades with re-runs on television and home release. However, to conservatives and libertarians the programme holds a greater significance as the only British television series bold enough to express a different set of values to the stagnant, cultural-socialist agenda of the BBC. It certainly shows us a glimpse of a path not taken, where different talents, separate from the old Left clique, could have been given free rein. The Prisoner should also inspire us to what can be achieved in the future.

Jo Bartosch: The BBC’s trans propaganda is alienating licence fee payers

14 Aug

Jo Bartosch is a journalist and campaigner for the rights of women.

If you knew that a teenager was buying potentially dangerous drugs online would you send in a film crew or call social services? The BBC have made their stance clear; vulnerable kids injecting themselves with hormones is televisual content to educate, entertain and inform the nation.

Aired earlier this month, a programme called Transitioning Teens, presented by young “trans activist and influencer” Charlie Craggs, set out to meet “young trans people” who have taken the “dangerous route of using unregulated medications and starting their transitions themselves.” Earlier this year, a suspiciously similar programme entitled DIY Trans Kids, also presented by Craggs was due to be broadcast; it was pulled following backlash on social media from those concerned that the programme’s synopsis glamourised harmful practices.

Undoubtedly, the colossal rise in children and young people identifying as trans is a newsworthy topic. Rates of referral to gender identity services (GIDS) have soared over the past decade; from 138 children and teenagers in 2010/11 to 2,383 from 2020/2021. But rather than a careful examination of what might be termed a social contagion, 23-year-old Craggs makes the case for quicker access to puberty blockers, potentially sterilising cross-sex hormones, and cosmetic surgeries.

There is a passing nod to impartiality. A ‘detransitioned’ young woman is interviewed, though the meeting is prefaced with a warning from Craggs that “destransitioners are used as a stick to beat trans people with”. The case of Keira Bell is also briefly referenced: Bell has been at the centre of a legal battle about children’s ability to consent to beginning the process of sex reassignment. Bell’s ordeal included the removal of her healthy breasts and possible sterility due to the administration of puberty blockers followed by testosterone.

But the suffering of destransitioners is glossed over, presented as collateral damage, an exception to the rule that ‘teens know best.’

The BBC’s transgender activist agenda extends beyond programming. It’s on social media where the gulf between Aunty Beeb and her reluctant licence-paying nephews and nieces is most apparent.

Earlier this week, BBC Sport tweeted to its 9.3m followers that they would block those who “bring hate” to its social media pages, encouraging other users to report offending comments the “relevant authorities”.

It seems the ‘hate’ they were referring to was from people who objected to fawning coverage of Olympic weightlifter Laurel Hubbard. Touted as the “first openly transgender athlete” the BBC championed the achievements of the 43-year-old, using female pronouns throughout articles. Those who dared to suggest Hubbard’s participation in the women’s category was unfair were branded ‘hateful’ and accordingly blocked.

Whilst the observation that Hubbard is a male might lead to dropped macchiatos in BBC editorial meetings, to the wider world it is simply a statement of fact.

Not to be outdone, on Tuesday, BBC Woman’s Hour tweeted asking listeners: “What’s the best way to inform teenagers about porn? Should there be age-appropriate porn as has been suggested so they can learn about consent and what’s respectful and what’s not?”

Whilst the programme itself was relatively sober, this clickbait tweet was the final straw for many listeners who expressed their anger online.

Tanya Carter, spokeswoman for the safeguarding group Safe Schools Alliance UK, said she was “disturbed the BBC’s lack of understanding of safeguarding.” She added:

“This has been a bad week for the BBC, from their bizarre tweets about ‘age-appropriate’ porn (making no mention of the fact that showing under 18’s porn is in fact child sexual abuse), their censorship of pro-women comments on Laurel Hubbard stories to their sanitising of the sexual abuse of children by describing it as ‘having sex. We expect better from our public broadcaster.”

Having once led the world with impartial, brave public broadcasting, the BBC is now shedding support. The bludgeoning of licence fee payers with the block button, and crass attempts to re-educate a sceptical public through trans propaganda, risk turning this once respected organisation into an irrelevant laughingstock.

Bim Afolami: The Olympic model of spotting and developing talent should be applied to academia

26 Jul

Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin & Harpenden.

As the Olympics begins, I have a giddy sense of excitement. The coverage is the BBC at its best. I start to care about events you barely knew existed (Men’s 10m Air pistol anyone?), and cheer on each British athlete with immense fervour.

There is something magical about the Olympics. It isn’t just the hype. It is the stories behind each and every champion. There is something special about the sacrifices they have made, spending their teenage years in a mixture of holiday training camps in addition to the relentless grind before and after school, and seeing all of that effort culminate in competing at the very highest level.

We rightly applaud and celebrate them, and we also praise their highly focused coaches and families who have helped develop their extraordinary single-minded focus on achievement from a young age.

After the failure of the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, during which Team GB only won one gold medal, finishing 36th in the medal table – below Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan – it prompted a period of furious self-flagellation in the media and serious soul searching among administrators.

Due to the brilliant decision of John Major as Prime Minister to introduce the National Lottery, this provided the funds for the “World Class Performance Programme” to start diverting funds into elite sport. It allowed athletes to devote themselves entirely to their training, paying their living costs and delivering a wide range of support services, from physiotherapy to sports science and nutrition.

Extra funds were also invested in greatly improved facilities across a range of different fields. The talent development programmes that made sure promising athletes were funnelled into their best sport at a younger age. All of this work has led to Team GB hugely improving its performance at Olympic Games, finishing 4th overall in Beijing 2008, 3rd in London 2012, and 2nd in Rio 2016.

Why do we think about academic and intellectual achievement so differently? Why do we regard the selection of children for academic ability and potential so anathema, yet ruthless and narrow selection for sporting prowess is regarded as rightly necessary to develop the leading stars of the future?

We need to focus on developing our brightest and most talented people, in a range of different fields, from a young age – and do this irrespective of their social background. As the Prime Minister often says, talent is evenly distributed in this country, but opportunity is not. We need to rediscover meritocracy in Britain.

The truth is that in order to do so, one is confronted by a difficult problem. How to discover and develop talented children in the population at large when the ladder of opportunity has so many rungs missing? And how do you give the best possible opportunities to such children once you have discovered them?

Adrian Wooldridge, Managing Editor of the Economist, in his new book The Aristocracy of Talent argues that the way to do this is to revive two ideas that were at the heart of the meritocratic movement until the “progressive” reforms of the 1960s: IQ testing and academic selection.

We know the arguments about the 11 plus – the Left argues that dividing the country between sheep and goats at 11, on the basis of one test at a very young age, does immense harm to those who failed in the process; the Right retorting that it gave unique life chances to bright working class children who were identified early and given life changing opportunities.

The best way forward is to learn from the failures and successes of the past. We don’t need a national 11 plus in the old style. We need more of a variegated school system that has lots of different types of schools from technical schools to music schools and arts schools, but which also makes room for highly academic schools in the state sector.

We have already provided the material for this with school academies – Brampton Manor Academy, for example, is situated in Newham, East London, with one in five children eligible for free school meals. The sixth form is highly selective (on the basis of GCSE grades), and it cultivates a highly academic atmosphere, with intensive Oxbridge training as well as a host of extracurricular subjects. Last year it won 55 places at Oxbridge – their method is working.

The Government could push this revolution further by allowing academies to select at 11 – not with an 11 plus, but with IQ tests developed precisely to avoid being susceptible to intensive tutoring that is all too common in preparation for that exam. This would not just be for the typical “academic” subjects.

For example, we should turbocharge the intake for our university technical colleges (which start at 13-14 years old) by scouring the country and actively selecting children with special aptitude in technical, engineering and design skills. These are the children who will go on to build our future high tech manufacturing capacity, or develop the sort of innovative ideas that will help us achieve Net Zero by 2050.

Wooldridge argues that, in addition to this, we could create a system of fully-funded national scholarships, awarded on the basis of a combination of IQ and social need, that would allow children to study at any school in the country – opportunities to be selected for this would happen continuously throughout secondary school, lest late developers be missed.

Private schools would be forced to open up a certain number of places to these students. These national merit scholars would be given free university education in return for agreeing to spend at least 10 years working in the public sector.

This would address the public sector’s growing problem with attracting high flyers, particularly in IT and tech. It would repair the fraying link between public service and intellectual excellence. As government and governing becomes ever more complex, and we demand more from our teachers and other public servants, we should try and ensure that more of the most academically able students are incentivised and trained for life in public service.

I know that real life is not the Olympics. Yet training and developing our most able young people for the future will not just be important for identifying hidden talent, but it will benefit all of our society. It is mad that the only type of selection that is verboten in the state sector is academic, when the wealthy can just pay for it.

Let’s rejuvenate the idea of meritocracy, and truly ensure that the most talented, from every background can get to the top. We might end up with better technical skills in industry, better civil servants, better teachers, and yes – much better politicians!

The people, the product, the audience – where has GB News gone wrong?

23 Jul

One can see, on paper, why GB News should work. Whatever the merits of the UK’s existing news channels, there is no equivalent of Channel 4 News catering to right-wing voters. Other outlets targeting this audience, such as TalkRADIO, have been successful.

Moreover, amongst the project’s financial backers was Paul Marshall, who has previous experience backing a winning new-media entrant from funding the website UnHerd.

Yet to date, the station has been plagued by setbacks. The launch was beset by technical problems, and criticised for its gloomy set design. Then spelling errors crept into the on-screen announcements.

Guto Harri, one of the presenters, was ‘cancelled’ by furious viewers after taking the knee, and has left the station. Key behind-the-scenes staff have also quit. Andrew Neil is on a leave of absence, whilst Nigel Farage has been given his own show. There is already talk of a ‘relaunch’.

Setting up a new TV news station is hard. There’s a reason the UK hasn’t had one since Sky News launched all the way back in 1989. Nonetheless, GB News seems to have made a lot of avoidable errors. Some of these, such as the technical bugs, have obvious solutions. But others pose tricky questions about what exactly it is trying to be.

The product

Perhaps the first thing that leaps out when tuning in to ‘Britain’s news channel’ is that there isn’t all that much actual news. Instead, the line-up is given over almost entirely to feature programming, centred on the station’s line-up of presenters. According to one source:

“The case originally put to investors was built on the idea that there is an unrepresented audience for TV, and that the model of ‘owning the analysis but renting the news’ would work.”

Running a proper news rolling network is expensive. Industry sources suggest that it would require a more extensive and experienced network of reporters than GB News currently employs, as well as costly subscriptions to archive footage libraries and so forth. They nonetheless find the absence baffling: “Why call yourself GB News if you’re not actually a news channel?”

The format means that it isn’t actually serving as a competitor to the likes of BBC News or Sky News. Nowhere that simply wants to have ‘the news’ up on a screen in the office or pub is going to have GB News on.

Another observer with industry experience points out that whilst GB News might be set up as a right-wing alternative to Channel 4 News, the latter is only a small part of even the current affairs output that Channel 4 puts out. “A centre-right channel would commission drama, would do comedy, and everything else, from a different perspective”, they suggest.

Nor is their appointment-to-view model without drawbacks of its own. One media figure suggested that the reason they have recruited so many relatively inexperienced presenters is because the fees for multiple three-hour-long programmes per day would otherwise be ruinously expensive. However, two or three hours is also a punishing distance for someone new to presenting – perhaps why Farage’s new show is only an hour long, and Michelle Dewberry’s has likewise been shortened.

The format also seems to be closely modelled on radio, to the point where it is hard to distinguish GB News’ output from that of stations such as TalkRADIO which increasingly insist on video clips to more easily share their stuff on social media.

“If you want to be an actual news network”, said one source, “you need to have more camera crews out there, doing what journalists do. You need to be producing packages.” They described the current setup as “radio with pictures”.

Together, these criticisms suggest that GB News has fallen between two stools, and that committing properly to being either an actual rolling news station or a full-spectrum centre-right TV channel will require a lot of investment in people and skills.

The audience

Who are the “unrepresented audience” that GB News is supposed to be aimed at? Judging by their first few months, they don’t seem to be entirely sure.

First, their choice of style and presenters alienated some ideologically-sympathetic views who wanted a more high-brow offering. Jemina Kelly, writing for the FT, noted that:

“One contact, who voted for both Brexit and Boris Johnson, told me: “I was hoping for ‘Spectator TV,’” referring to the conservative magazine, “but instead . . . it’s just tedious, dull and obvious,” adding that its production values “make the BBC look like the Royal Opera House”. Another, who voted the same way, called it “unwatchable”.”

Someone involved in the production of 18 Doughty Street, the pioneering web-based TV station from 2006, also suggested that the ideological complexity of the station is quite one-note. Whereas 18DS gave a programme to Peter Tatchell, and UnHerd features a quite eclectic range of writers, GB News is doubling down on the culture war angle. “The decision to appoint Mark Dolan” – a TalkRADIO presenter who cut up a face mask live on air – “had me shaking my head”.

This seems to have set up a vicious cycle. The format alienates potential viewers, leaving the station more reliant on a hard core, which then makes it even harder to reach out to new audiences. Thus when Guto Harri took the knee in support of the England football team, a boycott saw the audience reportedly fall to zero. He has now left the station.

Such tension between a ‘free speech’ posture and the ideological preoccupations of its audience should have been foreseeable. In his excellent essay ‘Neutral vs Conservative: the eternal struggle‘, Scott Alexander detailed how exactly the same fate befell many US efforts to create a self-consciously right-wing media space on the ‘free speech’ principle:

“The moral of the story is: if you’re against witch-hunts, and you promise to found your own little utopian community where witch-hunts will never happen, your new society will end up consisting of approximately three principled civil libertarians and seven zillion witches. It will be a terrible place to live even if witch-hunts are genuinely wrong.”

Another commentator worried that GB News is en route to becoming “UKIP TV”, saying: “If the idea is to broaden the debate and promote marginalised voices, you need an Own Jones show as well as a Nigel Farage show. Confirming the biases of a narrow audience base doesn’t contribute anything.”

The people

Perhaps that’s why Harri isn’t the only person to have left the station in the short months since launch. As previously mentioned, Andrew Neil is on a leave of absence. John McAndrew quit as director last week, reportedly because of pressure to focus on ‘culture war’ issues instead of his preferred focus on local reporting. Having insisted prior to launch that it wasn’t going to be the culture wars channel, we might expect to see more personnel changes if the station continues its pivot in that direction.

If the channel can’t recover from its disastrous launch, of course, we might also see presenters and other key staff starting to jump ship.

Meanwhile, much of the blame for the disastrous launch has been pinned on the fact that the board disregarded the concerns of both the presenters and the technical personnel to insist on launching ‘on time’, despite pretty much everyone on the ground knowing that they weren’t ready to go.

Amongst the problems caused by this was a relatively short time for pilots, which meant that avoidable technical problems – such as the programme used for remote interviews being blocked by the parliamentary internet – weren’t spotted.

Do those same executives have what it takes to get the show back on the road? It may take drastic steps. One source suggested they should take the whole thing off-air, rejig the schedule, and rebuild the set. “Come back in September, when its ready.”

Such a break could also give them the chance to ask the hard questions about what exactly GB News is trying to be – although it might longer than a couple of months to effect the sort of comprehensive overhaul some observers is required.

Does the Climate Change Committee have too much power?

7 Jul

Last month, it was reported that “Ministers ‘should urge public to eat less meat’’. Such is the view of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) – which has advised people to consume less dairy and meat in order to help the UK meet its environmental targets.

For many Brits, the very existence of the CCC will come as a surprise – never mind that it is now offering guidance on what to eat. But the public is likely to become much more aware of it, and its recommendations, because of the Government’s desire to meet its Net Zero targets (set by the CCC), and the publicity about their costs

The CCC has also had some high profile critics, such as Nigel Lawson. In a letter to Parliament in 2019, he claimed that the CCC’s recommendations were not accurate and reliable and, furthermore, that “it is essential that Parliament has time to scrutinise new laws that are likely to result in astronomical costs.” Did he have a point?

First of all, it’s worth explaining the CCC – and its history. The body was established under the Climate Change Act 2008, which legally binds the Government to reducing UK carbon dioxide emission “by at least 80 per cent by 2050, compared to 1990 levels”.

It stipulates that the Government must create a committee in order to achieve this – hence the CCC. The CCC website says it’s an “independent, statutory body” that aims to “report to Parliament on progress made in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for and adapting to the impacts of climate change.”

As of 2017, Lord Deben has been Chair of the CCC. He was previously the Conservative MP for Suffolk Coastal and now holds a series of roles, such as Chairman for Sancroft International (a sustainability consultancy) and Valpak (a leading provider of environmental compliance).

Other Committee members include a behavioural scientist, Director of the Priestley International Centre for Climate and an environmental economist. One member has recently had to step down because of a potential conflict of interest (more here).

While the CCC has kept quite a low profile, it has provoked mixed reactions – with some sharing Lawson’s cynicism about its role. Ben Pile is the author of the Climate Resistance blog and sceptical about the costs of Net Zero.

He tells me that in the era the CCC was created, “there was a tendency towards technocracies (such as Tony Blair’s decision to grant the Bank of England independence) and to push important decisions to those.” He calls this “the post-democratic model of politics”.

Pile adds that parliament, unsure of how to reach its own environmental targets, “essentially gave all of its power in this domain to the CCC”. The problem with this, however, is that “when there are debates about climate change and targets, no one votes against anything.” He adds that “they might as well not have a debate”, even when discussing trillions of pounds, and pushing an agenda that the “public just aren’t interested in.”

Andrew Montford is Deputy Director of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, an all-party and non-party think tank, “which, while open-minded on the contested science of global warming, is deeply concerned about the costs and other implications of many of the policies currently being advocated.”

I ask Montford if the CCC has become too powerful, but he says it’s more about influence. “Their word is in the UK taken as gospel, and if they say we need to move faster, then the Government tends to just say, well we need to do something,” he says. “They are in a position where they can bully governments into moving faster than perhaps governments would like.”

He agrees that there is “very little democratic oversight of what they do” and “they have pushed very hard on renewables… and there are other views”. Furthermore, Montford says “The committee’s got to be much more balanced… The whole thing is built around the idea that the general public’s interests revolve around the climate in 2050, and actually people have more immediate concerns, and those angles aren’t really addressed.”

Sam Hall, Director of the Conservative Environment Network, on the other hand, is more positive about the CCC. For starters, he says that David Cameron was an initial supporter of the Climate Change Act, which led to its inception, and that “as Conservatives, we should feel some ownership over this framework”.

He adds that “the fact that it’s expert, independent-advised” should mean “that targets can be less politicised” and that the Government doesn’t have to follow the CCC. “The Committee on Climate Change is there to provide that expert independent advice to inform policy-making, but ultimately it doesn’t make those decisions, so it wouldn’t have a veto on any changes to our climate targets.”

It strikes me that the closest thing to the CCC it is the Electoral Commission, but Hall points out that the EC has stronger powers (“to fine and take people to court”). The Office for Budget Responsibility might be a closer comparison. Montford thinks it is more like SAGE. (“politicians find it very hard to stand up to scientists… because then you’re anti-scientist, aren’t you.”)

Has the CCC become too powerful in politics? Although not exactly akin to the EC, you could conclude that, like it, it is part of the quangocracy legacy of the 2000s.

Its website certainly seems impressive and objective, as do its reports. However the biggest issue going forward may be one of public awareness. Frankly, I’m not sure many people are alert to the inner operations of the CCC, nor how big the bill for its recommendations are going to be.

It seems to me that such big decisions need – at the very least – more public votes, and attempts to keep the country’s environmental transformation committee-led, however sophisticated the committee is, will come back to bite.

Robert Halfon: White privilege is the wrong way to describe nearly one million white working-class disadvantaged pupils

30 Jun

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

I asked a few people in my constituency of Harlow what they thought about “culture wars” at the weekend. Not only had the term passed most people by, but one individual believed that it might be something to do with Game of Thrones.

But, just because most people are not focused on the “culture wars” in the same way that the “Twitterati” and the Westminster Village are, that does not mean we should not allow significant debate and discussion about terms like “white privilege”. Some proponents of concepts like “white privilege” seek to close down debate by accusing those who want to discuss this as racists.

Far from promoting racial harmony, using “white privilege” pits one group against another and does more to damage race relations than enhance them.

Following the recent publication of our Education Select Committee Report, The forgotten: how White working-class pupils have been let down, and how to change it, it was noticeable how, with the exception of great Labour figures like Lord Blunkett, even discussing the subject of “white privilege” was according to the Left, a sin of sins. The subject was discussed over just three pages out of a 90-page strong report.

I have been told that I am a racist. My staff and I have received calls to my House of Commons Office to explain that we are racist individuals. It is interesting that this attack is coming from the Left. (As an aside, it is the Labour Party that produced a leaflet sent around to Muslim constituents in Batley and Spen showing and criticising the Prime Minister for shaking hands with Narendra Modi, the Hindu Prime Minister of India.)

Our Education Committee decided to highlight the issues caused by the term “white privilege” because its use is fundamentally wrong for three reasons.

First, the concept of “white privilege” implies collective guilt when it should be individuals who are responsible for acts of racism.

Second, if you use the words “white privilege” you are basically telling a poorer white community that they are privileged. You are saying to a single parent, who might live in a tiny flat, doing their best to bring up their child, that they have “white privilege”.

Third, the use of the term is factually incorrect. All of the data shows that, far from being privileged in education, disadvantaged white working-class students are doing worse than almost any other ethnic group. Just 17.7 per cent of white British pupils eligible for free school meals achieved a pass or above in GCSE English and maths and only 16 per cent go on to university.

There will be individuals who make intellectual arguments as to what “white privilege” really means. For example, the BBC posted a video to its website of John Amaechi, a psychologist and former NBA basketball player, explaining why he believes “white privilege” to be justified.

However, the problem is that people can make all of the intellectual arguments that they like, but disadvantaged white groups just hear two words, “white privilege”. It is a bit like the Ronseal advert, it does what it says on the tin. The use of the term just tells people that whatever their circumstances, whatever their background, they have “white privilege”. It is wrong.

The other argument that often crops up is that the term “white privilege” is irrelevant and is not being used. This is far from the case. Barnardos uses the term as a guide to parents on its blog. Councils have been introducing “White Privilege” terminology. (See page 16 of our Education Committee report.) Calvin Robinson, a former teacher and school governor, has written extensively as to how the concept of “white privilege” is being introduced into teacher training toolkits and much more besides.

I previously mentioned David Blunkett, the former Education Secretary. Last week, when writing about our Committee report, he said:

“I, for one, have always found it offensive, divisive and frankly irrelevant to making a difference to the lives of those from whatever background, who deserve our support…to put it bluntly, the last thing that young people facing disadvantage need to hear is anything about ‘white privilege’”. 

He gave a warning to his party saying:

“If my party is not able to raise its voice in defence of its former political base of the white working-class, it will not have much chance of winning power in future”.

Blunkett has got it on the nail. Rather than properly reading the report and really examining why white working-class pupils struggle so much more than other ethnic groups in education, the critics choose to try to undermine the whole report based upon literally a few pages that suggested that the concept of “white privilege” was putting white working-class pupils at a further disadvantage.

I mentioned I asked people on the streets of Harlow about the “culture wars”. While they may not have come across this particular terminology, they did hear about our Select Committee report because of the intense media coverage. The overwhelming response has been positive. The silent majority know that white working-class pupils from free school meal backgrounds have been neglected for decades. It is time to right this wrong.

GB News. Will anti-cancel culture campaigns emerge to cancel the cancel culture campaigns – or try to?

17 Jun

In an appalling but unsurprising state of affairs, Stop Funding Hate (SFH) has set about trying to cancel GB News. I say unsurprising because, long before the first show aired, SFH had been campaigning – although no one could have predicted how quickly it would make gains.

Helped along by other Twitter activists, SFH’s prime tactic involves pressuring advertisers to stop funding channels (“funding hate”, as its Enlightened Keyboard Warriors see it) and unfortunately it is rather a successful one. So far, companies including Ovo Energy, Octopus Energy, the Open University and Kopparberg have paused spending with GB News, and others have since followed.

Several organisations claimed that they didn’t know they had been advertising in the first place (don’t you just hate when you accidentally advertise?!). Others took a more moralistic position. IKEA, for instance, said it had safeguards “from appearing on platforms that are not in line with our humanistic values”, and OVO Energy, while pausing its spending, Tweeted it believes in a “kinder world” and wants to “promote inclusion and diversity”. Just not diversity of thought, it seems…

In withdrawing their advertising, these organisations are not only hurting themselves (GB News has brought in ratings higher than Sky and the BBC, after all), but entrenching a dangerous culture that has gripped the West – whereby bullying and cancelling people/things now masquerades as social justice. This illiberal liberalism should have been put to bed long ago, but political and corporate cowardice has seen it exacerbate.

How do we stop it, though? That’s the tricky question, as Twitter activists have proven incredibly organised and capable of achieving their goals. The mainstream (because this isn’t just a right-wing phenomenon), on the other hand, sometimes seems at a loss as to how to respond, perhaps hoping these worrying trends will go away.

One thing that was encouraging about the GB News debacle was that people were more vocal than ever before in their disapproval of events. This is certainly part of the answer: companies need reminding that their consumer base goes wider than Twitter activists – and that they can inadvertently insult customers when they suggest shows, which many of them watch, are at odds with “humanistic values”.

Going forward, organisations need to strategise much better for Twitter storms. I have previously joked (ironically, on Twitter) that they could do with an “Ignore Twitter” department, but it’s not actually that far away from the truth – as what was so surprising about GB News was how unprepared companies were when they were targetted. Did they not realise that this would happen? Too often social media teams get spooked by Twitter – with no real sense of how well it reflects the real world.

Perhaps it’s time that the customer geared up, too. Occasionally I have wondered if we need to start our own campaign – a “Cancel the Cancellers” movement, for instance – to keep track of corporations that engage in cancel culture, but the danger is becoming as illiberal as the problem one is trying to counter. Personally I now simply keep a mental note of companies whose antics haven’t exactly enamoured me, such as The Body Shop, which piled in on JK Rowling. I’m just one person, but one person can quickly add up. It was notable that an advert on “toxic masculinity” by Gillette coincided with P&G’s $8 billion non-cash writedown.

In the future I suspect that some of the answer to cancel culture will be more organisations, such as the Free Speech Union and Counterweight, the latter of which offers “information, advice and support with dealing with Critical Social Justice (CSJ) ideology”, to deal with corporate politics, attacks on free speech and otherwise. What some of these unions have woken up to is that you actually have to be fairly proactive in fighting the perpetually “offended”, who are pretty organised.

In the meantime it seems to me that “people power”, as Emily Carver has recently written for ConservativeHome, will have the most sizeable impact on how organisations act. It was interesting to see the positive reaction to the Co-op, which was one of the few companies to stand by its decision to advertise with GB News, on social media. But this wasn’t completely out of the blue, as it had previously tried to stop funding with The Spectator, which did not end particularly well (read more here). That Co-op now takes such a brave stand suggests there’s truth to the expression “go woke, go broke”. It doesn’t hurt anyone to remember that only the customer can cancel in the end.

A warm welcome to GB News. The channel’s launch signals a wider reset for the media.

14 Jun

Yesterday, after much anticipation, it was the launch of GB News, a TV channel that has promised to shake up traditional media in the UK. More than 164,400 people reportedly tuned in, ahead of BBC News (133,000) and Sky News (57,000), and it’s no wonder the ratings were highest. Over the last year, GB News has had a huge amount of free publicity, due to the strong reactions its very existence has provoked. 

For Conservatives, Brexiteers and otherwise, GB News is a sign that their views are finally going to be fairly represented in broadcast media (after years of watching Question Time panels with only one Leaver, and shock election results). For others, it’s the death of political impartiality in TV journalism; the Americanisation of British politics, and even worse. So what was the reality of GB News’ first night?

The immediately striking thing about GB News is that it unabashedly embraces “Britishness”, with a logo that incorporates the colours of the Union Jack – and an assurance from Andrew Neil, Chair of GB News, as he opened the show. Staring into the camera – think John Humphreys at the opening of Mastermind in terms of the lighting – he told viewers that  “we will not come at every story with the conviction that Britain is always at fault”, in what will surely be a comforting message to those fed up of Britain bashing.

Neil’s speech set out GB News’ mission. It wants to be diverse in all senses – representing Brenda from Bristol as much as the London activist – promote free speech, and to get to the “real” issues worrying voters (expect less about Downing Street curtains, and more on council tax). “Because if it matters to you, it matters to us”, Neil said – in a slogan that underpins GB News’ desire to be led by its audience. Throughout, viewers were allowed to ask questions via video link.

Soon after his opening segment, Neil introduced viewers to the presenters for the show, many of whom will be familiar to either people who tune into Sky/ BBC, or those in favour of less “traditional” media. In fact, the beauty of GB News is how its organised its hires. Executives have paired household-name presenters – Alastair Stewart, Colin Brazier, Simon McCoy – with voices from more unorthodox outlets (think podcasts especially), where they have gained large followings and been brave at calling out cancel culture, among other “woke” trends GB News wants to combat (Andrew Doyle and Inaya Folarin Iman, for instance).

GB News clearly wants to challenge accepted doctrines of our time, from whether you should take the knee at a football match to the idea that lockdown’s benefits outweigh the negatives. Dan Wootton, who has his own show on GB News, laid into the Government’s policies – in a move that will have pleased those, including myself, who are worried about restrictions being expanded today. Some of the reactions on Twitter showed just how unfamiliar the public is with having this perspective put forward on TV. (It’s interesting that nowadays you find it most on Talk Radio or podcasts – again, showing how much these opinions have come off TV to the listener market).

Although the show had some teething issues – the sound didn’t work when Neil Oliver was interviewed, for instance – some of the attacks on GB News said more about its critics than the channel itself. The Guardian gave the show one star and called it “deadly stuff” in a review more bitter sounding than Guy Verhofstadt post-Brexit – and others obsessively Tweeted their hatred for the show. Why did they spend the hottest day of the year doing this if it was so torturous?

GB News should be congratulated for throwing its hat in the (media) ring. It’s easy to complain about the status quo in broadcasting, but to actually change it is something few do – especially in such a short period of time.

GB News’ emergence should also be seen in a wider context – as a “reset” moment for the media. Quietly audiences have been slipping away to channels they feel better represent them, whether UnHerd, Triggernometry, The Megyn Kelly Show (and these are just my favourites). So it’s really no wonder why the media is more scathing than ever in its reviews of new competitors. With the talent and energy behind it, it won’t be surprising if GB News continues to do well in the ratings – and we wish it well at ConservativeHome.

Maya Forstater: One’s sex can’t change. The story of my fight to ensure this view is judged “worthy of respect”.

14 Jun

Radical is a civil-rights campaign for truth and freedom on matters of sex and gender, committed to free expression and equal respect, founded by Rebecca Lowe and Victoria Hewson. This Radical piece is written by Maya Forstater, an independent researcher, writer and adviser.

Last week, I won a landmark Employment Tribunal case where my belief that sex is real, immutable and important was found to be “worthy of respect in a democratic society”.

The case concerned freedom of speech and belief, and how far employers can constrain these rights when it comes to talking about sex and gender.

The test of being “worthy of respect in a democratic society” is meant to be a low bar, ruling out only the extremist views of literal nazis and violent revolutionaries. The first tribunal found that my belief fell into this category. The appeal judge disagreed.

The judgment states clearly that no one has the right to harass others at work and, importantly, protects everyone from discrimination based on their belief or lack of belief. This means it protects people like me who think that the words “male” and “female” relate to sperm and eggs and the bodies built to deliver them. It also protects those who believe in innate-but-fluid gendered identities, and who prioritise  “gender expression” over anatomy.

The judgment sets a precedent that should encourage Liz Truss and Boris Johnson to stop the practice of Whitehall Departments and other public bodies bending the knee to the gender lobby by pledging their allegiance to Stonewall.

My story starts in 2018. While working for an international development think tank, I had begun tweeting and writing, in my own time, about sex and gender, during the government’s consultation on reform of the Gender Recognition Act.

Some staff at the headquarters in Washington, D.C. took exception and this set off an escalating process. The organisation panicked, my tweets were compiled, diversity and inclusion consultants were drafted in to assess them, and even though I was not found to have broken any rules or policies, the senior leadership conceded to the will of the offended that I should be cast out. Ultimately, I lost my job.

My belief that sex is real should be utterly unremarkable. This is what the law says, after all.

But it has taken me over two years and £120,000 in crowd-funded legal fees to get this far. I still need to return to the Employment Tribunal for it to decide whether I was discriminated against in practice.

Despite telling my employer that I would use any preferred pronouns that people wanted and would always act with usual professional politeness, I have been put through a two-year nightmare, had my career destroyed and been painted as an extremist “transphobe”  too dangerous to associate with.

Along the way, I have also been investigated by the Scout Association (where I was a Cub Scout Leader) after a bearded man I had never met reported my use of the pronoun “he” instead of “they” for that person  on Twitter. The Scout Association dragged me through a complaint process over 18 months. I was told to apologise to the man who had called me “transphobic”, a “TERF” and “scum”, and who had said that I would leave young people dead and was unfit to be a Scout leader.

Indeed, the Scout Association partially agreed. The fact that I had taken my employer to tribunal, and judgment of the first judge, were taken as evidence that I might not be fit to be a Scout Leader.

Another set of doors that were slammed in my face were legal. My employment tribunal case was turned away by two law firms (one that dropped it just a few days before I was due to launch the crowdfunding campaign). The Solicitors Regulation Authority responded to my complaint by saying that it did not breach its code “if a firm declined to act because the client’s views conflicted with its own principles and values, as long as these were not discriminatory”.

I have been turned down for jobs at other think tanks and universities, and all but erased from history in the sector where I worked. This has happened even as my inbox fills up with messages from former colleagues, professional networks and eminent professors saying that they agree with me but cannot say so publicly for fear for their own careers.

It is not that I have said anything extreme to warrant this, or that I have been a uniquely unlucky target.  The new organisation I have co-founded, Sex Matters, has heard from dozens of people, in a wide variety of sectors, who have been investigated and subject to workplace discipline for such crimes as liking tweets, defending J.K. Rowling or questioning workplace policies. Meanwhile, thousands  more people are afraid to speak up.

The Kafkaesque nightmare we find ourselves in reflects the capture of the levers of policy- and decision-making by a small but influential group of LGBT+ lobbying organisations.

This is institutionalised through the Stonewall Diversity Champions Scheme. It covers 25 per cent of the UK workforce  and includes  organisations ranging from the Government Legal Department, the Ministry of Justice and the Solicitors Regulation Authority to the BBC and Ofcom, as well as almost all universities, major private sector employers and voluntary organisations from Citizen’s Advice to Save the Children. Stonewall’s prescriptions are delivered by a churning cast of “account managers”: young men and women fresh out of university in shiny suits and directional haircuts assess the policies of major organisations, and tell them what to do and say when employees dissent.

Every day we receive emails from people within Stonewalled organisations who say they fear for their jobs.  They talk of the  “Stonewall Stasi”: internal “LGBTQI+ Allies” groups who are empowered to thought-police their colleagues. As part of the Stonewall scheme the groups undertake “reverse mentoring”, where a young cadre-member will re-educate senior management. They write policies on micro-aggressions and pronouns (which of course it would be a micro-aggression to question) and set up ever more intricate tripwires of language with which to set off new rounds of complaints.

Straight “allies” often outnumber homosexuals and transsexuals in these groups. Many of those who write to us and say they are afraid are gays and lesbians who have found themselves on the wrong side of Stonewall’s new sexless world.

My win is a step towards stopping this madness. It clarifies that there is legal  protection against discrimination and harassment for people who do not subscribe to the dogma that “trans women are women; trans men are men”, that “demisexual” is a sexual orientation, or that men can be lesbians. It protects those who refuse to call themselves “cis”, do not feel the need to put pronouns in their email signature or wear a rainbow lanyard.

It also provides protection for those who aren’t involved in political debates on sex and gender at all, but who know that sometimes sex matters. This includes elderly women on hospital wards, religious women asking for a female health-care professional and children in school who don’t want a gender-confused teenager of the opposite sex in their showers.

None of this justifies or requires hostility or harassment of people with a transgender identity. But we do not have to remake all of reality for them, and nor should complaints processes be used to harass, bully and victimise others.

No one else should have to go through the nightmare I and my family have been put through. The government should withdraw all government departments from the Stonewall Scheme, and produce simple, straightforward guidance on single-sex services, and on freedom of belief as provided for by law.

Emily Carver: To really fight the woke agenda, we need a march back through the institutions

2 Jun

Emily Carver is Media Manager at the Institute of Economic Affairs

The British sense of humour is second to none. The satire, innuendo, self-deprecation, and no-subject-is-off-limits attitude is one of those rather nice quirks of our national culture.

Or at least it was. While most people still have a sense of humour (at least in private), mainstream comedy has become yet another way for ‘liberals’ to signal their virtue – and our state broadcaster is leading the charge.

At the weekend, a clip from BBC Three ‘comedy drama’ Shrill was doing the rounds on social media. In the clip, a white woman was being scolded for asking for her hair to be styled in dreadlocks. Her crime? Attempted cultural appropriation, of course.

Typical from our state broadcaster, viewers were treated to what felt more like a moralising lecture on identity politics than any real attempt at humour. What was once the BBC’s brief to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ has seemingly become to lecture, re-educate, and bore. Political grandstanding comes first; humour comes a slow second.

And it’s not just the BBC (although if you’ve had the misfortune to sit through a few minutes of Have I Got News For You recently, you’d definitely know it to be one the worst offenders); it’s everywhere.

Stand up is now a minefield. On a recent pub trip in north London, I found myself in the audience of a comedy night. You could visibly see the anxiety on the faces of those taking part – and not just because they had stage fright.

One young man stopped short of cracking a joke about being overweight, presumably for fear of being offensive to the one chubby person in the crowd. Another act based her entire stand up around Trump and Brexit. How daring! The only genuinely funny contribution was a young woman who cracked jokes about her sex life; a subject the male participants noticeably avoided (again, presumably to avoid accusations of sexism). I can sympathise; the pressure to not offend can be oppressive.

But what so many of the ‘social justice’ left seem not to realise is just how conformist and earnest they’ve become. Surely being able to laugh at ourselves is one of the more charming things about the British public? But of course it’s only some subjects that have become taboo; the white working class are fair game for a certain type of ‘liberal’ metropolitan comedian. Presumably they don’t count as ‘punching down’.

As we know, comedy is just one British institution that has been affected by the illiberalism of the social justice movement. As Dr Steve Davies points out in a recent paper for the IEA, the ‘social justice’ left is the ideology gaining most traction in universities, just as it dominates the media, public bodies, and corporate life.

But could the fight back be underway? Last week’s news that the chairman of the National Trust had resigned was met with relief and a sense that perhaps this could be a turning point. Although the organisation has since told the Guardian that Tim Parker’s resignation had nothing to do with the no-confidence motion circulated by Restore Trust (the grassroots movement that campaigned against the ‘woke agenda’ of the leadership) the timing suggests otherwise.

If common sense can prevail at the National Trust, could it in the many other British institutions that have been captured by an excessively politically correct leadership?

We’re certainly seeing the creation of parallel institutions that are attempting to provide an alternative. Comedy Unleashed, the comedy night which promises a space for comedians to take risks with their humour without fear of being censored – or without feeling the pressure to self-censor – is an example of this.

When it comes to our universities, which are undisputedly home to some of the worst excesses of the modem left, it seems you can only push people so far before they snap. After Cambridge University set up a website for students to report their professors for ‘microaggressions’ (offences include raising an eyebrow, giving out backhanded compliments, or referring to a woman as a girl), academics pushed back, and it has been taken down pending review.

There is also a growing resistance against the excesses of the trans lobby, which may also come as a sign that the tide is turning. In attempting to control the narrative on gender issues, controversial LGBT charity Stonewall is suffering the consequences of over-reach; a particular low being when the CEO Nancy Kelley likened “gender critical” beliefs to anti-Semitism. According to the Daily Telegraph, several high-profile public sector employers, including the Equality and Human Rights Commission, have begun cutting ties with the charity.

However, it may be too soon to claim any broader victory for common sense, when you hear of a librarian at King’s College London pressured into apologising for “the harm” caused by sending a photograph of the late Duke of Edinburgh to colleagues because of his “history of racist and sexist comments”. Perhaps, in the future, we all should include a trigger warning at the start of our emails to avoid any potential upset? Although I don’t suppose that would be enough to appease those constantly seeking out offence.

Robert Jenrick, the Culture Secretary, has said that new safeguards to prevent statues and monuments from being torn down “on a whim” has encouraged councils, charities and heritage organisations to be “much more careful” about “bowing to a small number of very vocal people”. If this is true, it will come as much relief to those members of the public who have been horrified by mindless attempts destroy parts of our heritage.

While the Government may be making all the right noises when it comes to challenging the excesses of cancel culture, critical race theory, and the excesses of the social justice movement, no amount of state intervention is going to reverse the left’s long march through our institutions.

After all, we have a Conservative government, yet our universities, much of our civil service and corporates are largely on board with the modern left’s cultural priorities, the obsession with race and gender manifesting itself in unconscious bias training, speech guidance, and tedious diversity and inclusion campaigns.

Rather than knee-jerk legislation which can so often end up backfiring and curtailing liberty, what we need is a counter march of the institutions, which will only come with people power. Perhaps the small victory at the National Trust could mark a real turn of the tide away from the more authoritarian elements of left-wing activism and we can finally regain our collective sense of humour.