The Media Column: Specialists Have Been Largely Usurped by "Star" Columnists and Professional "Why, Oh Why" Hacks Who Purport to Know about Everything from Bird Flu to Life in Fallujah
Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)
Reading a column in the Independent this month on the Education Bill, I came across a statement so extraordinary that I reread it three times to make sure I had understood it correctly and not missed some hidden ironic intent. I also scanned the readers' letters keenly for several days, expecting somebody to dispute the statement. Even more amazingly, nobody did.
The column was by Deborah Orr, whose work I usually admire, and this is what she wrote about a school (unnamed) in the London Borough of Lambeth, where she lives: "Last year 47 per cent of pupils had passed five GCSEs at A* to C grade. This ... means that 53 per cent left the school functionally illiterate."
Illiterate? The Independent runs a rather odd, but riveting, column on Saturdays in which Guy Keleny, guardian of the paper's style, highlights misused words, grammatical errors, instances of jargon and so on in its pages. The use of "illiteracy" should be drawn to his attention. GCSE grades A* to C are the equivalent of the O-level grades awarded when I was at grammar school 45 years ago. Less than half of my pre-selected fellow pupils managed five O-levels. Today I know university tutors who, at first sitting, got fewer than five top GCSE grades. I accept that some say exam standards have fallen, but surely not to that extent. I accept, too, that Orr used "functionally" as a qualifying word, but she uses it too imprecisely to convey any meaning. She is saying, in effect, that most Britons can't read: a preposterous statement.
I would forgive her--we all say daft things at times--if it weren't symptomatic of a wider phenomenon. This is the rise of a commentariat who express opinions that have no basis in knowledge. Twenty years ago, academics, professional practitioners or a paper's own correspondent would provide a fair proportion of comment. On an education bill, for example, the education correspondent would often be the main source of analysis. On new Labour's current bill, however, I can remember only one article by a specialist--Matthew Taylor, the Guardian's education man--and very good it was, too.
Otherwise, specialists have been largely usurped by "star" columnists and professional "why, oh why" hacks who purport to know about everything from bird flu to the situation in Fallujah. Only a few root their opinions in a broad specialist field: for example, the Guardian's George Monbiot (environment) and Polly Toynbee (health and social services), the Independent's Hamish McRae (economics), the Telegraph's John Keegan (defence) and some political columnists. …