Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

13 May 2008

Campaign for Plain England No. 7: social care – but where?

Just had a listen to GB’s 4.30-minute long speech yesterday, introducing the British government’s consultation on social care in England. At least, I assume it related to England only, for two reasons: 1) England is the only ‘part of the country’, as GB would say (and did say, in fact – but I’ll come on to that) where the Scottish-elected PM has any say over social care; and 2) the BBC and other media reports – to their credit – did state up front that the consultation was designed, in the BBC’s words, to “reform the social care system for England’s ageing population” – which does rather make it sound as though ‘England’s ageing population’ are making themselves an increasing nuisance and causing an inconvenient budgetary shortfall, in contrast to a more neutral phrase that could have been used, like ‘social care for the elderly in England’.

In passing, a brief description of those reforms as outlined yesterday: the usual New Labour mix of no new money from the public purse for England, coupled with incentives for individuals to save for their later social-care needs (so they don’t have to sell the family silver to pay for it – but they’ll still have to pay for it); plus more ‘efficient’ (cost-effective) co-operation between the health and social services, and more help to assist people to lead independent lives at home (less of a burden on social services, although probably many people would genuinely benefit from that until their condition becomes too debilitating).

So I had to gather from the context that the reforms being proposed related to England only: GB certainly didn’t say so. Yes, not a dicky bird on England: not one single measly mention of the ‘E’ word from the unelected Scottish English First Minister. However, I did spot a particularly pernicious circumlocution that just about summed it up. As usual with GB’s utterances, you had to be alert to pick up on it, as he passed quickly on. The offending passage, about three minutes into the speech, was:

“We know that differences in entitlement between different areas of the country create uncertainty and anxiety for people when they are most vulnerable. Of course, those who have the most need are given the most support”.

What are these ‘differences in entitlement between different areas of the country’? This can mean only the difference between the entitlement to free social care in Scotland compared with the means-tested systems in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. GB tries to gloss over this in the second sentence I’ve quoted by implying that the ‘difference in entitlement’ is the same as the means-tested system itself, which ensures that ‘those who have the most [financial as well as care] need are given the most support’. But there isn’t a ‘difference in entitlement’ between different areas in England: everyone has the same level of entitlement relative to means. By contrast, the difference in entitlement in Scotland is not proportionate to individuals’ means or care needs: all elderly people who are thought to need personal or nursing care in Scotland are offered it free of charge regardless of means or the severity of their condition.

As a result, GB is reiterating two deceits here: 1) that the Barnett Formula, which guarantees the higher levels of public expenditure in Scotland that enable the provision of free personal care there, is a reflection of genuine social need and of greater poverty in Scotland; 2) that his remit as PM in the social-care area extends to ‘the country’ (the whole of the UK) and not just England. So he can try to make out that he is a reasonable UK PM trying to ensure a fair distribution of stretched public finances across the whole of ‘the country’, rather than a Scottish-elected PM who needs to make the English social-care budget stretch as far as possible so as to subsidise the superior and more expensive system for his constituents. Well, us wealthy, property-owning English shouldn’t whinge so much, should we? We should be glad that we do have assets we can sell to pay for our social care – unlike so many of our northern cousins, apparently – and if we’re worried about the future, we should just save for it now like the thrifty Scots!

Approval ratings:

  • BBC: four out of five – well done for being up front about the fact that the measures related to England only. Docked one point for suggesting it was almost the ‘fault’ of the ageing English population that the public purse for social care was so stretched – rather than the truth, which is that the English would probably be more than happy to pay for better social care through their taxes if they were given a democratic say in the matter, as opposed to wasting many more billions on futile fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance.
  • GB: zero – say England when you mean it, man!

19 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 6): Vaughan Williams and Elgar

You can forgive Hilary Davan Wetton for choosing to defend the cause of the English composer, Vaughan Williams, in the manner he does in last Friday’s Telegraph. The man makes out a case for celebrating the works of Vaughan Williams, the 50th anniversary of whose death falls this year, as a great, indeed “quintessentially British”, composer. This is a tactic: he wants to shame a government that has not funded any commemorations of Vaughan Williams – not even a postal stamp – by talking up his Britishness, arguing that: “Here is a national emblem from which we can all draw inspiration if we want to try to ‘gather together under the Flag’, as we are urged to do. Not the flag of crude jingoism, or even the exuberant patriotism of Land of Hope and Glory, but a deeply felt, understated sense of what it means to be British”.

Vaughan Williams, then, is more ‘truly British’ even than Elgar (the composer of the tune to Land of Hope and Glory), who qualified for inclusion on the old £20 notes, many of which are still in circulation. Err, sorry to dampen your campaigning zeal, Mr Davan Wetton; but maybe one of the reasons why Vaughan Williams has not yet been lauded by the British state is that he was quintessentially English, not British. A collector of English folk songs (those of southern England, too), not “British folk tunes”, as you write; someone whose music traces its heritage back to the traditions of English – not ‘British’ – renaissance music (‘Britain’ didn’t even exist in the renaissance), and whose musical influences that you name are all traditionally thought of as English: Tallis, Purcell, Holst, Walton and Britten.

By contrast, Wetton does not even include the English composer Elgar, in whose music, according to him, “German influences are clearly audible”, in his list of great British composers. Well, I’ll agree with you there, Mr Davan Wetton, as he of all people is a composer you would tend to think of as quintessentially English; not only because of Land of Hope and Glory but of works such as the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance.

As observed above, it’s Land of Hope and Glory that has earned Elgar his fame as a celebrated British composer – claims which, according to Davan Wetton and a commentator from the review Gramophone they invited on to BBC Radio Four’s Today programme this morning to debate Davan Wetton’s claims with him, are highly exaggerated and unrepresentative. This is because Elgar would have rejected the – err, British – jingoism of Land of Hope and Glory, whose words he was not responsible for. And, by the way, those words do not actually mention ‘Britain’, or ‘England’ for that matter. They clearly are a reference to Britain and its empire; but like the musical tradition continued by Vaughan Williams and Elgar, the anthem traces Britain’s power and essence back to their earlier and deeper roots in Englishness:

Thine equal laws, by Freedom gained,
Have ruled thee well and long;
By Freedom gained, by Truth maintained,
Thine Empire shall be strong.

It’s a bit rich, then, that Davan Wetton should not include Elgar in his list of British musical greats – whose German influences he appears to regard as contrary to such a claim – when he explicitly dismisses his endorsement of Vaughan Williams and the fellow members of his British pantheon in the following terms: “This is not an appeal for a shallow ‘Little Englander’ mentality. None of these composers was insular: Holst studied Sanskrit, Vaughan Williams went to France to study with Ravel, Walton adored jazz and Britten was entranced by Gamelan music from Bali”.

OK, I get it: ‘British’ composers are internationalist, not narrow Little Englanders – despite the fact that his list of British composers comprises great English composers. And the English composer Elgar represents such English jingoism, despite the fact that he is generally thought of as more British than his fellows (unfairly, owing to the only semi-British / semi-English patriotism of words he didn’t write) and the fact his influences were just as international as all those other ‘British’ composers.

What a load of old bunkum! They’re all great English composers; and, as such, their influences are both typically English and international: they wouldn’t have the universal, worldwide appeal and musical complexity they do have if they hadn’t been profoundly influenced by great music from around the world. If we’re going to celebrate the great music of our country, let this at least be England when we’re talking about England. And, for that reason, I agree that the government should do more to mark the anniversary of Vaughan Williams: a great figure in English music.

6 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 5): No change to phone taps as evidence in Scotland

It probably goes without saying – correction, it has gone without being said – that the recommendations of the Chilcot Report, released today, that evidence derived from phone taps could be admissible in evidence in criminal trials (for instance, against suspected terrorists) do not apply to Scotland – only England and Wales. But I haven’t heard that being said on the news on BBC Radios Four and Five, or BBC One on the telly. Nor is it stated in the report that currently appears on the BBC News website.

But it’s there in black and white in the report itself. The problem is that, while the interception of communications is a reserved matter (i.e. still the responsibility of the Westminster government), procedure in courts of law and policing in Scotland are the responsibility of the devolved government in that country. So the Chilcot Report recommends that some form of Public Interest Immunity be introduced in Scotland, similar to that in England: meaning, as I understand it, that details concerning the methods used to obtain intercept evidence, and the full details of that evidence, could be withheld from open session of court in order to keep those intercept methods secret in the public interest. There are currently proposals of precisely this nature before the Scottish Parliament, which may – or may not – result in PII legislation in Scotland. However, as the Chilcot Report states on pp. 21-22: “We therefore recommend no change to the current legal regime for interception in Scotland until new legislation is in place and its potential impact has been assessed”.

So something that Gordon Brown insisted should be introduced, if it is in the end, in the interests strictly of national security (meaning the security of the UK as a whole), may come into law in England and Wales but not in Scotland. Does this matter? Well, surely where national security is at issue, there should not be one law for England and Wales, and one for Scotland – if we are one nation, that is. Similarly, where civil liberties are at issue. This is the other side to the coin of phone-tap evidence that didn’t seem to weigh much in the balance in the PM’s speech in the House of Commons this lunchtime. So depending on how you think the admittance of phone-tap data as evidence in criminal proceedings may either advance or impede the ‘war on terror’, or may impinge or not on civil liberties – it’s quite likely that some of the residents of the UK, terrorists and law-abiding citizens, are going to get off Scot free.

Addendum, 7 February: later in the day, the reports did indicate clearly from the outset that the proposed change to the rules affected England and Wales only. However, this was stated without any further explanation or comment; for instance, what were the ‘national security’ implications for Scotland going its own way on this issue, if that’s what they eventually decided to do? Was it not so important a matter that pressure should be brought to bear on Holyrood to pass the necessary Scottish legislation, to ensure that all UK citizens enjoyed the same degree of protection against the terror threat? Or if it wasn’t important enough to push through the measure in Scotland, was it really that important or necessary in England and Wales? Is it perhaps just another case, like that of the superfluous extension of detention without trial for terror suspects to 42 days, where GB [Gordon Brown] wants to be seen to be tough and decisive, but the measures involved are quite ineffective? And then the reporting as a whole still presented the debate as if it related to the whole of the UK, which it quite manifestly didn’t, as the Scottish dimension was not touched upon at all.

5 February 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 4): GP opening hours

Much of the media coverage yesterday concerning the row between the [English] government and the British Medical Association (BMA) over a proposed new contract for GPs in England obscured the fact that the dispute is completely limited to England. I was driving for much of yesterday and so was able to listen to several radio news reports at different times of the day. The morning bulletins failed to mention at all that this was an England-only matter. In the BBC Radio Four evening news, there was a single mention of the fact that the [English] Health Secretary, Alan Johnson, would be writing direct to GPs in England to put the government’s case.

The story on the BBC News website does mention England three times but in a way that also doesn’t make it completely plain that the dispute is exclusive to England. The article twice states the fact that Alan Johnson will “be writing to every GP in England”; and reports that “if they [GPs] reject it, ministers will impose a tougher settlement in England”. If you were not aware that Alan Johnson’s responsibilities are restricted to England, you could conclude from these statements that what’s happening is that greedy over-paid English GPs are resisting longer and more flexible surgery opening hours, while their counterparts elsewhere in the UK have embraced the changes. Hence, a tougher solution has to be ‘imposed’ on England, whereas it’s been willingly accepted elsewhere.

This is not true. It’s basically an issue of unequal funding of GP services in England compared with Scotland and Wales, along with a privatisation agenda for England that is a complete non-starter in the rest of the UK. The BMA does not object to extended hours for GPs in England but is resisting the government’s proposals because they are not accompanied by any additional funding. According to the BMA, this could result in an inferior quality of service to patients during daytime hours, who include those who are most in need of a sustained level of care from a medical team that knows them and their condition – something that traditional general practice provides so well. The BMA believes that the government is deliberately trying to push a confrontation with doctors in England, so as to make out that English GPs are unwilling to provide the extended services the government claims it wants to promote (without funding them). This will enable it to introduce so-called ‘polyclinics’: large multi-practitioner primary-care clinics run by multinational companies. These clinics would effectively mean that the government was ‘outsourcing’ much of the GP service to commercial providers, thereby cutting its costs, and resulting in a decline of traditional general practice along with the continuity of care and of relationships with doctors that it facilitates.

In England, that is, not in Scotland or Wales. The plans for the health services in both those nations (see links in previous sentence) involve a more collaborative relationship with the BMA in planning extended roles for GPs – including, yes, extended surgery hours – but as part of schemes where the resources are being made available to ensure that service provision is improved in local areas where the need is greatest. In other words, GPs will work longer and more flexible hours, and their responsibilities will grow; but this work will be properly funded by the public sector and planned out as part of an integrated programme for improving care for the most vulnerable. 

By inadequately conveying the fact that the row over GP terms and conditions relates to England only, the media is effectively supporting the government in pushing a whole separate agenda for public health-service provision in England compared with Scotland and Wales.

Verdict: BBC Radio News, 1 out of 5 – one mention of ‘in England’ but not clearly identifying the dispute as exclusively an English matter

BBC News website, 2 out of 5 – three mentions of England; but again, not clear to the uninformed reader that the dispute is about an inequality of funding and disparity of policy for the health service in England compared to those in Scotland and Wales.

30 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 3): Stop and Search, and Social Care

Just a couple of quickies from the media over the past few days. First, the ‘stop and search’ row that broke out at PMQs this morning. Haven’t followed the coverage as systematically as usual, but I didn’t hear either GB [Gordon Brown] or David Cameron referring to the fact that they were talking about relaxing the rules regarding stopping and searching (young) people in the streets in England and Wales only. The reports on the Radio Four lunchtime and evening news similarly didn’t mention the fact that the debate was relevant to England and Wales only – or at least, I didn’t hear any mention of it.

The BBC News website is – as on many occasions – the worthy exception. Its report does mention in two places that the discussion involves England and Wales: the Tories’ claim that scrapping the bureaucratic forms the police have to fill in every time they stop someone “would save 900,000 police hours per year in England and Wales”; and a reference to Sir Ronnie Flanagan, the chief inspector of constabulary in England and Wales, who’s produced a report on it. However, the first six paragraphs of the BBC News website report fail to mention ‘England and Wales’ at all; and the way the alleged statistic of 900,000 police hours per year is thrown in out of any context could give the impression that this is being referred to only because statistics for England and Wales are gathered and published separately, not because the whole story refers to England and Wales alone.

Why does this matter? How would the issue be debated differently if the proposals for England and Wales were contrasted with the approach taken in Scotland? It’s known that stop and search makes only a negligible contribution to reducing youth crime and gang violence, which is the alleged reason for relaxing the rules. Equally, statistics (and damn statistics) show that ethnic and religious minorities are more likely than their white [English] counterparts to be stopped and searched, leading to resentment at supposed racism and Islamophobia on the part of the [English] police – despite DC’s bland assurances that the [English] police are “no longer racist”. [Really – not even a little bit, in parts?] In addition, playing on the [English] public’s fear that stop and search is necessary to reduce gang violence (even though it’s pretty ineffectual) contributes to the demonisation of [English] youth, while increased stop and search is likely to increase the disaffection of young [English] people towards the [English] police.

OK, so how are the preventive approach, the thinking, the attitudes towards young people, the extent of gang violence, and the whole problem of youth crime different in Scotland? What lessons can we learn, if any, from our northern neighbours? Is English youth really as bad as it’s (only implicitly) being made out to be, and is it that much worse than Scottish youth? Only goes to show what a violent, uncouth and racist lot we English are then, doesn’t it?

Verdict: GB and DC – 0 out of 5 for opportunistic, let’s-play-on-the-fear-of-crime-on-English-streets stop and search politics; BBC Radio Four: 0 out of 5 (no mention of England and Wales); BBC News website (2 out of 5: if you’re wised up, man, you can read between da lines about dem English lies).

Quickly on to the social care issue. BBC Radio Four, again [you can tell I’m a devotee, if only in the Victor Meldrew ‘I don’t believe it’ school] have been running an excellent, informative and campaigning ‘Care in the UK’ month of programmes. Except, you’ve guessed it, it’s about social care in England: about 90% of it, that is. Look at their Care Calculator and their Care Questionnaire: all England only. The resumés of the month’s programmes – virtually all England. You become aware of this exclusively English content only when you click through to the detailed information; the introductory pages make no mention of England – but in this case, what you get is definitely not what it says on the tin.

Why does it matter? Because it blunts the whole campaigning thrust of the programme. The situation of personal and social care in England is desperate. But if you make out that you’re talking about the UK, not England, then you can avoid referring to the infinitely better deal the Scots are currently getting: free personal care for all who need it. The question the programme asks is why isn’t the UK getting better social care provision? What it should be asking is ‘why isn’t England getting better social care provision, like that available in Scotland?’ Instead, you get a sentence like this: “Social care is means tested in most of the UK“: no, it’s means-tested in England, not in Scotland.

The You and Yours programme has sent a set of listeners’ questions to the Care Minister, who’s a junior minister in the Department of Health: the English Department of Health, that is, whose remit is social care in England not in the UK. Do you really think he’ll address the English dimension of the question? Does he really care about England? They may make a few improvements around the edges, and then the government can say that it’s listened to the British people; and the programme will say that it’s helped to improve care in the UK – avoiding those embarrassing comparisons with Scotland, where the situation will still be – to coin a phrase -miles better.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 for the BBC; very worthy exercise but deceitful in pretending that there’s some kind of uniform UK-wide governmental responsibility for these issues; whereas England’s plight in this area is because it’s ‘cared for’ by a UK government that thinks England needs to carry the financial burden of the Union.

21 January 2008

Campaign for Plain England (No. 2): Flag Flying, the DCMS and the PM in China

I have to admit to feeling a bit disappointed about the Department of (English) Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) July consultation paper about flag flying on government buildings, which appeared on the new Governance of Britain website last week. I hadn’t really followed the detail of the government’s previous pronouncements on the issue, and I thought there might be some recommendations about flying flags other than the Union Flag, such as the Flag of St. George in England.

In fact, the consultation paper deals only with flying the Union Flag on UK government buildings in England, Scotland and Wales. What this effectively means is mostly government buildings in England, as the document “does not extend to Scottish Executive, Welsh Assembly buildings. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly government are responsible for policy on flag flying from their own buildings”.

What I want to know is, who’s responsible for plain, grammatical English (language, that is) in the DCMS? First of all, they omit the word ‘or’ from the first sentence, without which it is strictly speaking nonsensical. Secondly, do they mean that the Scottish Parliament is responsible for policy on flying the flag from the Scottish Parliament building only; or does this responsibility of the Scottish Parliament extend to other buildings of the Scottish Government (not Executive)? And if so, which flag or flags are we talking about (the Union Flag only or the Saltire or both, or others)? And what constitutes ‘their’ buildings anyway, as – technically – all Scottish Government buildings are UK government buildings (devolved not independent)? Unless ‘their’ has the legal sense of property ownership, in which case one might assume that at least the Scottish Parliament actually owns the premises where it convenes – but whether ownership of their accommodation extends to the Scottish Government and its various departments, I don’t know.

And ditto for Wales.

I suppose the consultation paper’s inability to address the English aspect of the flag issue (whether more frequent flying of the Flag of St. George on UK government buildings in England might help to foster a greater sense of national pride and engender a feeling that the UK government was at least trying to engage with the priorities of the English people) was only to be expected of the DCMS. As was its failure to communicate exactly which responsibilities in this matter are devolved to the Scottish and Welsh governments, and which are retained. This is because the DCMS is actually, in most but not all matters, the English Department of Culture, Media and Sport; as most but not all of the UK government’s responsibilities for these matters in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have been devolved to those countries’ own governments. Therefore, you would think that the DCMS would see it as a major part of its remit to promote, affirm, celebrate and defend English culture and sport; though not the English media, as Media is a retained UK-wide function. But that’s not how they appear to see it, or at least how they communicate what their role is. When you visit the Department’s website, you are met with what is a now familiar difficulty of disentangling which of its responsibilities are UK-wide, which of them relate to England only, and which of them relate to both England and Wales. Indeed, on the home page, there isn’t a single reference to England, even though the Department’s competency in some of the areas mentioned on the home page (i.e. culture, sport and tourism & leisure) is limited to England.

So here’s another example of the same old deception of presenting a government department’s activities as if they covered the whole of the UK when in reality they involve England only. In fact, the DCMS is a veritable patchwork of retained and devolved responsibilities that illustrates the complexity and asymmetry of the current devolution settlement. Or which would illustrate it if it wasn’t such hard work to find out which bits are UK-wide and which bits England- (or England and Wales-) only. For example, go to the misnamed ‘What we do’ page, and you get a listing of no fewer than 20 topics for which the department is responsible. But you have to click through to each one to find out how nationwide its responsibilities in each domain are. And even then, it’s not always obvious.

Take the case of architecture. I clicked the link to ‘architecture and design’, where it said: “We are responsible for the quality of architectural design in this country”. Which country is that?, I asked. It’s not clear, as neither ‘England’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’, ‘UK’, ‘United Kingdom’ nor ‘Britain’ appear on the page. It took a visit to the Scottish Government website for me to work out that the DCMS’s responsibilities for architecture do not extend to Scotland; although they encompass Wales (I think). Therefore, in this instance, ‘this country’ means England and Wales, apparently. Another grammatical howler and logical non-sequitur.

I did eventually come across a list indicating which of the Department’s responsibilities have been devolved to Scotland (but not Wales) and which have been retained. There it says, “DCMS will be responsible for sponsoring the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which will act in England as a Champion for Architecture”. Does this mean that the Commission will similarly act as a champion for architecture (why the capital letters?) in Wales? And is ‘acting in England as a Champion for Architecture’ the same thing as ‘acting as a champion for English architecture’? I think not; and I imagine that the same Commission (assuming it does have responsibility for Wales) wouldn’t be coy about saying that it was championing Welsh architecture. Note this preference for the phrase ‘in England’ over ‘English’. It means government departments, where they mention England at all, can talk about UK government responsibilities that are exercised ‘in England’ rather than about specifically English functions of government. The same applies to media reports about government policy or activities, where they say ‘in England’ as if to imply that those same departments had equivalent responsibilities in Scotland and Wales, which they don’t.

In the case of DCMS, what we have is not a department that proudly promotes the great culture of England (just as the corresponding devolved departments in Scotland and Wales so proudly affirm Scottish and Welsh culture) but a UK department looking after (UK) culture in England. So, to return to my point of departure, it’s not surprising that in the area of flag flying, they’re not an English government department making policy about flying the English flag on UK government buildings in England (unlike their devolved Scottish and Welsh counterparts, if I’ve understood the incoherent language of the consultation correctly); but rather, they’re a UK department making policy about flying the UK flag in England. Clearly, it’s not a department that’s interested in flying the flag for England.

By contrast, GB [Gordon Brown] was flying the flag for Britain in China last week. Or rather, he was promoting not British culture or values but British business, pure and simple. Note the ease with which any awkward questions about his hosts’ abysmal human rights record and their suppression of the Chinese people’s aspirations to a true democracy (such a pivotal British value, as Brown has frequently reiterated elsewhere) were not just brushed aside but swept right off the agenda and under the red carpet. Such a venal pursuit of privileged trading terms to me seemed a defeat of the much vaunted British values and a surrender of them to the mighty yuan. It was fitting, then, that the image of the Union Flag behind GB in a joint press conference with the Chinese Premier Wen was actually incorrect: it showed all four arms of the diagonal red Cross of St. Patrick closer to the horizontal centre of the flag than its outside. (See the video of the press conference; you’ll have to wait till almost the end for the flag to be flashed up.) When I first saw the image on the TV news, I thought the flag was actually flying upside down: the traditional military distress signal, indicating that a British position may have been captured.

Now where have I seen an inverted Union Jack recently?, I asked myself. I was reminded of the answer to that question when I visited the said new Governance of Britain website: they’ve adopted an upside-down Union Flag as their logo! What more telling symbol could there be that the government’s drive to create and reinforce a British-national culture and set of values is destined to defeat! Just as those values were defeated and in retreat in GB’s single-minded pursuit of Chinese consumers’ cash and Chinese investors’ funds last week. Perhaps the DCMS should produce some guidelines about the correct way to fly the Union Flag. Except they’d be so garbled that no one would be able to understand them. Certainly not the Mandarins organising the PM’s trip, it would appear!

If they want people to respect the flag, perhaps they could begin by respecting the values it’s meant to symbolise. Better still, replace it with the English flag, symbolising English people’s refusal to sell ourselves short and, indeed, auction our values to the highest bidder.

17 January 2008

The Campaign For Plain England (No. 1)

Taking my cue from the Campaign for Plain English – the organisation that campaigns for public bodies and businesses to produce information for the public and consumers in simple, easy-to-understand English – I’m today launching the Campaign for Plain England: an occasional series pointing up failures by government, politicians, public-sector organisations and the media to make it plain when they’re referring to England.

First in the series, today’s news story about the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee report calling for GPs in England to prescribe more generic drugs rather than their branded equivalants in order to prevent unnecessary expense. The report does appear to refer to the fact that it relates only to the NHS in England: ‘England’ is mentioned in total six times in the report’s 36 pages. However, on closer examination, readers have to infer that the report deals only with England; or else they must rely on contextual information such as their background knowledge that the House of Commons has competency in such matters only in relation to England, or by reference to the BBC News’ website‘s clarification that the report concerns itself with England (hat tip to the said website for saying ‘England’ in the first sentence of its report).

The report never makes it totally explicit that its recommendations relate to England only. The actual references to England come in the form of statistical information concerning the historical and current situation with regard to drug prescribing. The rest of its lengthy deliberations contain no reference to England. Nor is England mentioned on the title page.

Perhaps this lack of transparency about the report’s exclusive England focus was what foxed the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning, as they referred to the Public Accounts Committee’s report in their news bulletin, and then conducted a five-minute interview with a supporter and opponent of the Committee’s recommendations, without once mentioning they related to England only. So there was I left hanging, not sure whether in fact the report was relevant to the UK as a whole or just England, but assuming that it was England only, which indeed turns out to be the case – I presume.

4 out of 5 for the BBC news website (not 5, as only one mention of England, admittedly in the first sentence)

1 out of 5 for the Public Accounts Committee report (several mentions of England but never totally explicit that the whole report relates to England)

0 out of 5 for the Today programme – total editorial failure there!

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