Month: September 2016

A Biased Perspective on Media Bias

People on the left and centre-left of the political spectrum spend a great deal of time and energy critiquing the methods those on the right use to manufacture consent for their ideology through the media. If we think we know so much about how it’s done, why do we struggle to do it ourselves?

One of the recurring themes of the Labour leadership election that has just concluded was “media bias.” Supporters of Jeremy Corbyn continually expressed outrage throughout the campaign at the “MSM” (mainstream media) and what they perceived as unacceptable media bias against their hero both from sources they might once have considered neutral such as the BBC or the Independent and from sources that are generally considered left-leaning such as the Guardian, the Mirror and Channel 4. Corbyn’s detractors within the party, meanwhile, drew regular attention to the forces of the right-wing press (the right-wing national newspapers, Sky News and ITV and London’s Evening Standard) and the need for the Labour leader to deal effectively with the vitriol they so often seem to unleash on the party at election time.

As Labour struggles to reunite after a bruising and divisive contest, this has all led me to ponder just how biased the UKs media really is and what, if anything, can be done about it?

 First, let’s consider those well-known newspapers we associate with the political right. The Times, the Telegraph, the Mail, the Sun and the Express (as well as their Sunday counterparts and the Metro) are all owned by a group of five white male billionaires with right-wing views: Rupert Murdoch, Paul Dacre, Richard Desmond and the Barclay Brothers. To have amassed the fortunes they have, these men have had to ensure their publications appeal to a wide audience and reach many millions of customers and this has enabled them to drip their own views into the national conversation along the way. This was particularly evident on their front pages the day before the general election last year.

To what extent these exercises in (what one could be forgiven for calling) propaganda actually succeed in influencing voters is unclear. It is quite possible that these newspapers are simply meeting a demand that exists independent of themselves for the sort of content they offer. But their role in reinforcing negative attitudes towards immigrants, women, benefit-claimants and our European neighbours seems unhelpful at best and downright malevolent at worst. So one is forced to ask why these titles dominate the print media. 1.8 million people buy the Sun on an average day and 1.6 million buy the Mail, compared to just 164,000 who buy the Guardian and 55,000 who buy the Independent. Left-of-centre doesn’t sell.

One response to this is to insist that many more people, especially younger people, access news online rather than in newspapers and this is often accompanied by an assumption that this format provides greater balance, or even a left-wing emphasis. It is far from clear that this is the case. Unsurprisingly, the BBC website is the most popular new website in the UK but it’s closely followed by the Mail Online in second. Over the course of the last few months a website called “The Canary” has risen to prominence, setting itself up as a sort of left-wing Click-Bait answer to the Daily Express: alarmist headlines and unsubstantiated conspiracy theories designed to enrage potential readers into clicking on its links. Nothing sells like hate but there is no sign that the Canary is gaining any traction outside of the small group of uncompromising left-wingers it initially targeted. And for every one of them, there are three right-wing extremists getting their news from similar sites at the other end of the political spectrum such as the odious Breitbart News Network. The idea that the media will start to generate less heat and more light with the growth of websites like these strikes me as seriously questionable. Instead, I fear there is a risk that many people are able to cut themselves off altogether from content that challenges their existing worldview and, by sharing article after article saying the same thing over and over again with like-minded people, they are creating dangerously isolated pockets of groupthink. They start out by clicking on links which chime with an initially sensible and understandable point of view, and end up believing that Sadiq Khan is secretly working for ISIS or that Angela Eagle is conspiring with MI5 to kidnap John McDonnell’s hamster.

So what about good old “Auntie” then? For a long time, voices on the right have decried the supposed left-wing bias at the BBC caused by its tendency to employ “metropolitan liberals” (people who live in cities and don’t hate Muslims and gay people) as journalists. During one of the election debates last year Nigel Farage criticised the audience as “extraordinary even by the left-wing standards of the BBC” when they dared to voice their disagreement with what he was saying. This is a common complaint among UKIP supporters and more hard-line Conservatives: that the BBC is overrun with woolly lefty bleeding-heart liberal types like…well, a bit like me, I suppose. However, in recent months, many on the left, especially Jeremy Corbyn’s adoring fans, have been routinely levelling the opposite criticism: that the BBC is beset by right-wing bias. Much of this criticism has been bizarrely focussed quite specifically at the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, but it has also been applied to issues like the choice of guests on Newsnight and the decision about how high a profile particular stories get in the TV news headlines and on the coporation’s website.

The BBC seems to take something of a lead from the print press in terms of what it deems newsworthy; the Andrew Marr Show begins each week with a paper review in which journalists and politicians talk through the day’s front pages and a similar review is broadcast every evening on the news channel. This procedure, overseen by those “metropolitan liberal” editors, leads me to suspect that, if the accusations of bias coming from both left and right tell us anything, it’s that the BBC is as close to neutrality as is possible given the range of views the British public hold.

So, with a largely neutral BBC, a print press that is skewed heavily to the right and now an online realm that includes a range of different echo-chambers, many of them entrenching quite extreme and uncompromising views, it is very difficult for the Labour Party to make itself heard by the majority of the electorate. How, if at all, can it address this challenge?

During New Labour’s pre-9/11 heyday, a highly disciplined and meticulously organised media operation led by Alistair Campbell was used to force the party’s message out despite press hostility, Tony Blair flattered and indulged Rupert Murdoch in a bid to lessen that hostility and the entire party became a well-oiled spin machine: messages were focus-grouped, soundbites were field-tested and MPs thoroughly briefed on the party line before any interaction with the media could take place. Voters think they want honest, genuine, heartfelt politicians. But the politicians who have won any sort of significant election in Britain in the last twenty years have been those best able to emulate Campbell’s spin machine.

The rise of Jeremy Corbyn has, in many ways, been a reaction against New Labour’s mistakes and, while I sided against him during this leadership election, I have also been frustrated with the stubborness and utter lack of contrition on the part of Tony Blair’s most vocal advocates, not just about Iraq but also about Labour policies that ended up laying the groundwork for the worst excesses of this Tory governent (such as PFI in the NHS and aspects of its academies programme.) Unfortunately, Corbyn’s devoted followers have responded to this impasse by dismissing everything that happened during those years and so the very idea of a competent media operation has come to be regarded as some sort of “Red Tory” sell-out as bad as any other.

This is a dangerous and misleading attitude and it has to be challenged. Jeremy Corbyn has won two leadership elections. I voted for him (reluctantly) the first time round but several issues (including his handling of the antisemitism row, numerous PR blunders and his frankly duplicitous attitude to the EU referendum) rendered me unable to vote for him again in good conscience. Nonetheless, he is the leader and unless we are going to leave the Tories completely unopposed those of us who didn’t support him this time have no choice but to try and unite around him. However, unless he and his supporters can accept the need for a coherent media strategy, no amount of unity will make any difference to the scale of the electoral catastrophe towards which the party is hurtling. Timing announcements to maximise press coverage isn’t selling out- it’s a way to use the media to your advantage. Briefing your shadow ministers thoroughly before they go into interviews isn’t “Blairite”- it’s just a sensible precaution.

Labour aren’t going to win an election on Twitter, nor by relying on the popularity of obscure online publications peddling empty outrage. To change the country, a party must win an election in the country as it was before that change, not after. Most voters don’t follow the intricacies of politics between elections. They tune in and make a gut reaction on the basis of the narratives they see playing out on the BBC and in the newspapers. For as long as we allow the Tories to control those narratives, we allow them to control the country and, by extension, our own lives.

There is bias in our media and it presents Labour with a problem. It needn’t be an insurmountable one but it won’t be solved by simply ignoring it, shouting “MSM bias” and hoping it goes it away. We must face up to it, own it and undertake the painstaking work of turning it to our advantage.

What transferable skills do teachers have?

It’s the second week of the Autumn Term. Many teachers’ positive attitudes towards the new school year are no doubt being challenged for the first time since the restart. Perhaps you’re one of them. Perhaps the first onerous and nonsensical diktat has come through from your SLT or academy trust. Perhaps you’re starting to wonder if you are going to be able to build a special bond with Pocahontas-Marie after all, or maybe she’s going to make life as miserable for you as she did for Ms. Jenkins when she was in Year 3. Maybe, after six weeks of careful if subconscious rose-tinting, the reality of the state of the professions has simply dawned on you anew and your thoughts return to that question you’ve come back to so many times in the past: “what else could I do?”

At this point a full disclosure is required.  Right now, I am sitting next to an ocean-fed volcanic pool in the beautiful garden of the villa in Hawaii where, for the next two weeks, my wife and I are enjoying our honeymoon. Until 7 weeks ago both of us were senior leaders in London primary schools with significant challenges. At the moment our only challenges are avoiding the mosquitoes and the risk of sunburn that comes with the tropical Polynesian climate. For several reasons (outlined here and here) we took the decision last year to quit our jobs and travel the world. We both have bits and bobs of paid work lined up for the year ahead but it’s not enough to live on and for the moment we’re relying on savings, wedding gifts and the rental income from our flat in North London. From our travels, we’re seeking escape and adventure but also a bit of time for reflection. When the money has run out, what should we do next? Before we committed to this decision I worried that this question might niggle at us like a loud ticking clock but, the more I’ve thought about it, the more confident I’ve become that what we face is an exciting choice, not an intimidating deadline.

I don’t want to talk other teachers into leaving the profession, but I also don’t want children in our schools taught by people who only carry on doing it because they can’t think what else they could do with their lives. If that’s you, I want to offer you some reassurance. You couldn’t quit teaching tomorrow and become a heart surgeon or a premier league footballer but, with the skills you have, the majority of jobs out there are yours to choose from. That’s why I’ve compiled this list of seven transferable skills a person gains from a career in teaching.

1.) Project Management.

Many people who think they do demanding project management jobs have never organised a school trip. If you can arrange a visit for a day (or several days) for a group of children and ensure they are all safe, supervised and benefitting educationally from the experience, then there are a whole host of other initiatives you would be capable of organising: conferences, entertainment events, holidays, weddings, training sessions and corporate away days. Project managers are required in many different sectors and no one manages a project as thoroughly or as meticulously as a teacher. And managing a project involving a group of adults who are unlikely to try and escape or wee in the plant pots? Easy.

2.) A Rhino’s Skin

Whether it’s receiving feedback after lesson observations, responding to candid remarks from your students or conversing with that parent through gritted teeth, one thing you need to survive as a teacher is a thick skin. If you’ve lasted more than a couple of years in the profession it means you’ve succeeded in dealing calmly and professionally with levels of personal criticism unheard of in most walks of life. If you decide on a career in the hospitality or retail sectors, no customer will ever say anything to you quite as cutting as the remark about your hair that boy in Year 6 made that time. And if you go into politics, no room of angry voters will ever be quite as hostile as a room full of parents who want to pick apart the new homework policy you’re seeking to introduce to your school.

3.) Dealing with Pressure

Imagine this: a job where you’re set targets that you can meet if you do enough of a certain thing. Guess what? That’s most jobs. The targets teachers are set in their annual appraisal tend to relate to the progress of specific groups of children (often measured in extraordinarily bogus and outlandish ways and which may not be achievable no matter what the teacher does.) If your job is to plant shrubs, your targets will relate to how many shrubs you planted. If your job is to fix washing machines, your targets will relate to how many washing machines you fix. Even if you work is another area where meeting targets depends on other people, like sales, you’re unlikely to come across a target quite as absurd as when you “agreed” that 90% of that class would achieve age-related expectations in maths by the end of the year, despite the fact a third of them couldn’t read well enough to access the test paper, four of them spoke no English and one of them just spent the entire year rocking back and forth on his chair and quietly repeating the word “moist” whatever you said. Lots of jobs have their pressures but few compare to those you find in the classroom.

4.) Presentational Skills

Kind of obvious but this is something that normal people stay up all night worrying about. All teachers are used to standing up in front of groups of children to convey information or explain concepts. Most also have at least some experience doing this in front of groups of adults during INSET sessions. Doing what many people anxiously call a “presentation” is this: teaching a lesson to a room full of people who already understand quite a lot of the subject matter, who are themselves held responsible for ensuring they understand it and who all, to some degree or another, actually chose to be there.

5.) Influence and Authority

You remember all that time you spent building a rapport with that challenging kid? Let’s call him Edward. You remember how, over time, you learnt what made Edward tick and what would make him kick off? You remember how, in the end, you had him more or less doing what you expected of him? Right, now imagine doing all of that with someone you or someone senior to you chose to employ knowing that, in the end, if they didn’t fall in line they’d be fired. People make millions writing books about influence and authority full of content most teachers learnt in their first term. If you can teach, you can manage and you can lead. Of course you’ll need to think about how to package that message at interviews as many of those on the panel at an interview for another management job would like to imagine that what they do is harder than teaching (don’t correct them until you’ve signed the contract.)

6.) Numbers and statistics

This has become an increasingly important part of the British education system as a succession of governments have sought to replace children with numbers. Particularly if you have held an SLT or higher-ranking middle leadership position in a school, dealing with data, statistics and EXCEL spreadsheets is likely to have been a significant part of your role. Imagine if you took all those skills you’ve applied to school assessment data in the past and applied them to something that actually meant something? Those skills could be put to good to use almost anywhere, from scientific research to accounting to charitable fundraising.

7.) A Growth Mindset

This is the big one. If I learnt anything from being a teacher it’s that what determines our success as learners, more than anything else, is our attitude. Aptitude exists too (It would take more years of practice than a human lifespan to make my tennis-playing ability as good as my knowledge of British history, for example, and I know people for whom the reverse would be true) but, all too often, the biggest stumbling block I encountered to children’s progress throughout my teaching career was what Carol Dweck would call a “fixed minset.” Our society celebrates and encourages the view that certain types of people are only inherently good at certain things. I’ve spent the last few years trying to challenge this assumption in my students; I’m going to spend the next couple of years challenging it in myself. A plumber is somebody who learnt to plumb, a surveyor is somebody who learnt to survey and the conductor of an orchestra is someone who learnt to conduct. Investment bankers like to boast of their talents to justify both their existence and their salaries, but all of them are merely people who learnt a particular set of skills that almost anyone could have learnt given the time to do so. Some jobs include skills that take many years to learn while some take only one or even less. You could choose one, put aside a few hours a week, and start now.

If you’re a teacher now and have been for a long time, you will probably never be an Olympic gymnast or an astronaut, but the list of options blocked off for you is absolutely dwarfed by the list of other paths still waiting to be explored. Your career as a teacher hasn’t closed doors. It’s opened more than you realise.