Monday, March 09, 2009

Boris Johnson on censorship of what children see

The perennially untidy Boris Johnson is the Conservative Mayor of London and has far and away the best sense of humour of any leading politician anywhere -- Which is refreshing after the perennial rage of Leftists. I don't always agree with him but enjoy his writing immensely. Not very surprisingly, his father is a brilliant humorous writer too. See here and here. He read classics at Balliol so had a good but old-fashioned education. Which makes it surprising that he misspells "krater" as "crater" below. Perhaps a spell-checker "corrected" what Boris originally wrote. A krater was a large decorative pot used in ancient Greece to mix wine and water. It is spelled with a "k" (kappa) even in Greek. The mention of Liege below refers to several recent shocking crimes against children in Belgium. Oxfam is a self-righteous British charity that runs thrift shops

The risk of going on holiday with friends is that you inadvertently expose the vagaries of your child-rearing methods to the scrutiny of others. Some parents seem to be breast-feeding lusty six-year-olds. Some of them have strange systems of potty training. And I am now accused by my fellow parents of being eccentrically liberal in what I consider suitable for the kiddies to watch on television. It happened like this. We were all chuckling at a DVD of For Your Eyes Only, a superbly bad 1981 Bond film starring Roger Moore, and I was just thinking what wholesome family viewing it was. For those of us in the throes of middle age it was cheering to watch the elderly Roger Moore as he creaked around the set while younger, fitter women flung themselves at his wobbly jowls. It is not so much an action movie as an anti-ageism tract.

So there we were giggling away, when another friend and mother came in and said - very nicely - would we mind pressing the pause button, because she didn't want her 11-year-old exposed to the sex'n'violence of James Bond; and of course we immediately complied, though I was puzzled. There was no swearing; the violence was so parodic as to be completely undisturbing. As for sex, the only racy scene involved Bond and the girl taking off their dressing gowns, so that you saw their undraped knees - in the case of Roger Moore, a reassuringly wrinkly knee.

What was wrong with that, I wondered; and then another parent piped up and observed that we let our children watch a film called Hot Fuzz - an acutely observed satire of rural policing - even though it carried a 15 certificate, and most of our children were not yet 15. Yes, said someone else, and what about this DVD of Shaun of the Dead? Don't tell me you let your children watch Shaun of the Dead? Er, yes, I said. Like families across Britain, our family has been richly entertained by the bit where they bludgeon the zombies with cricket bats, and the bit in Hot Fuzz where the spire falls from the church and skewers someone.

But I have to admit that under the interrogation of my friends I felt a spasm of guilt. Am I contributing to the erosion of public morals? Am I failing to set the right boundaries? Am I partly responsible for Broken Britain? Well, yes, you are, said one friend and mother. These James Bond films glamorised violence, she argued. They carried the implication that chaps with guns were successful with women, and she didn't like the way her three-year-old rushed around pointing his finger and going bang.

And what's this, said someone else, riffling through the pile of DVDs: not Desperate Housewives! Not Sex and the City! Did we really let our children watch these shows? I don't think I am grown-up enough to cope with a full episode of Sex and the City, since it is Aristophanic in its vulgarity, but I had to admit that some of our children might have seen some of it, and they might have seen some of Desperate Housewives; and by this time I realised that I stood convicted in the eyes of my peers. We have been so lax as to allow our nation's future - at their most impressionable age - to be exposed to shattering images of New York harlots, exsanguinating zombies and Roger Moore's knees.

I have been racking my brains for a defence, and the first point to make is that we are always slightly stunned to discover what the younger generation is reading or watching. I remember my grandmother being amazed that I was reading David Niven's risque memoir, The Moon's a Balloon; and no one stopped me picking up Flashman, at the age of 11, and discovering that the hero gets off to a cracking start in life by being expelled from school and raping his father's mistress. I speak for most of my generation when I say that in every group of 13-year-old boys there was always a porn merchant who did a lively trade in Knave or Fiesta before going on to hone his skills at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs.

Did these literary or visual stimuli corrupt us, or make us any more dysfunctional than we would otherwise have been? I doubt it, any more than children in fifth-century Athens would have been corrupted by sneaking a look at the images on their parents' red?figure calyx-craters.

Every generation is phobic about the effect of new technology on the morals of the next, and the truth is, I don't like the idea of kids spending hours on the web, probably being groomed by paedophiles from Liege; and yet all the kids I know - whatever they have been goggling at - seem remarkably unruffled, and surprisingly moralistic. No matter how sordid the programmes, they disapprove vehemently of swearing. Anything remotely racist or homophobic sounds much more profane, to their ears, than it did to children 30 years ago. I could direct you to an 11-year?old who certainly likes Desperate Housewives, but the show she really loves is called High School Musical and is so clean as to be positively emetic.

Sometimes I think our censoriousness is not so much about protecting children as it is about preventing them from seeing the embarrassing silliness of adult behaviour. Of course there must be limits. It's just that I am not sure we always put them in the right place. The satirical schlock of Hot Fuzz is apparently only suitable for those of 15 and above, while the much nastier and more violent Batman yarn, The Dark Knight, rates only a 12A. What's that about? In so far as there is any potential for corruption in these films, it depends, I suppose, on what else is going on in the lives of our kids and what else they do with their time.

The real trouble is that they watch too much blasted electronic media altogether, and for a treatment of this painful issue I direct you to the micro-selling volume, The Perils of the Pushy Parents, by me, published by HarperCollins, and still available at the local Oxfam.


British professors reveal watered-down degrees

Academics are breaking ranks to expose a grim picture of higher education

A group of academic whistle-blowers have warned that British higher education is being blighted by watered-down degrees, rampant plagiarism and systematic pressure from university authorities to inflate the grades of weak undergraduates. The complaints by the academics - working at universities including Oxford, Sussex, Birmingham, Cardiff and new institutions such as Central Lancashire and Manchester Metropolitan - have been presented in a 500-page dossier to an MPs' inquiry.

One reports a student begging "please don't dumb down any further", while another says students are more interested in sending text messages in class than paying attention. The problems are blamed on two decades of relentless university expansion without adequate funding.

The evidence increases pressure on John Denham, the universities secretary, to take steps to guard quality as he prepares to announce a strategy for higher education this summer. One source at the select committee said: "It has to be quite a brave person to stick their necks out like this. "There is sufficient commonality between their concerns to be worth taking seriously - it is incumbent on the authorities to do so. The worry is they are inclined to dismiss rather than investigate."

Those who have given evidence include Sue Evans, an economics lecturer of some 30 years' standing at Manchester Metropolitan University. She describes a disappointed Slovakian undergraduate saying last term: "This university is like high school in Slovakia." Another begged the department: "Don't dumb down the subject any more than you already have." Evans also provides extensive allegations of marks frequently being revised upwards without justification. She says she has raised her concerns "repeatedly" with the university but without any response.

Her complaints are echoed by Stuart Derbyshire, a senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham University. On one occasion, he said: "When I complained, he [an external examiner charged with scrutinising standards] stated that it was no longer 1986 and that we cannot mark like we did in the past. `We must', he said, `look harder for excellence'."

Some of the submissions raise concerns over the commitment of students themselves. The dossier includes warnings from some of Britain's most senior academics. Alan Ryan, warden of New College, Oxford, wrote that, while he approved of expanding university education, too much of it is "remedial secondary education passed off as something else". At Oxford, he said, "anyone who remains awake and is tolerably well organised can get a 2:1". He added that there is a "dumbing to the middle" at the university in which compliance with government quality procedures is more important than "waking up minds".

Peter Dorey, a politics academic at Cardiff, said: "They often sit in seminars with only their mobile phone in front of them on the desk . . . but no books or notepads." He told the inquiry: "Many of them are semi-literate," adding that he was starting to feel "as if I am wasting my time with today's students".

Some of the greatest concerns raised are over the quality of science education. Janet Collett, emeritus biology lecturer at Sussex who also holds a post at Harvard, warned the committee of "serious slippage of standards". She said many leading American academics believe "sharp critical thinking and fostering independence are no longer the hallmarks of British university education". Collett said this weekend that American colleagues complained that even Oxbridge science graduates "just didn't know enough".

Higher education is now more popular than ever, with figures released last month showing applications to start degrees this autumn up 7.8% on last year, when 413,000 started at university. However, there are signs that head teachers at the most academically successful state and independent schools are starting to steer the brightest pupils to join a steady trickle across the Atlantic. Andrew Halls, headmaster of the independent King's College school in Wimbledon, south London, claimed that at a recent parents' meeting, half the 200 or so present said they would consider sending their children to America. "US universities are starting to have a real edge," said Halls. "The more they [British universities] water down their degrees, which they patently are, the worse."

David Willetts, the shadow universities secretary, said there was still widespread excellence, but added: "A lot of students who get in touch with me are raising issues such as how crowded their seminars are, how rapidly they get work returned with a mark. Those are the types of issues students and parents really worry about. Universities have to listen."

Universities contacted this weekend to respond to the submissions denied there were quality problems or that staff were pressed to change grades. A spokeswoman for Manchester Metropolitan added: "Miss Evans expresses a lot of very personal views but presents very little objective information. There is no evidence staff are put under any pressure to bump up grades. We are extremely disappointed and upset that a colleague has chosen to raise these issues externally."

David Boucher, head of the school of European studies at Cardiff, said: "The school does not recognise the picture of students Dr Dorey paints."


Why is it 'Left wing' to allow millions to live on benefits and let children get each other pregnant, asks the ex-minister who broke Labour's last taboo

By Tom Harris, Labour Mp For Glasgow South

A prominent Labour politician in Glasgow once told me of a family he knew, every member of which was claiming incapacity benefit. When one of the sons managed to get a job, he was pressured by the rest of the family into giving it up, since an adult in the household gaining employment put the family at risk of being deprived of other benefits, including council tax.

The benefits culture remains Glasgow's shame, and it is not confined to my city; many other post-industrial areas of Britain suffer the same malaise of second and third generations of families being brought up to believe a life on benefits is acceptable. It isn't, as I said a few days ago on my blog. I was not just trying to make the point that young women's lives are wasted by early pregnancy and a subsequent life dependent on benefits. I was also seeking to reverse what I see as a culture of tolerance, where we are now expected to accept everyone else's choices without criticism or judgment, even when those choices have a negative effect on the wider community.

This has led us to a place where children are giving birth to children. There is no criticism of 16, 15 or even 14-year-old girls (and boys) who become parents. Yet why is it so difficult for us to admit that when a 14-year-old becomes pregnant, or gets his girlfriend pregnant, it is a personal tragedy and a social failure?

This is where politicians are completely out of step with the public. I have been taken aback by the number of people who have told me how relieved they are that I have come out and said what to most people has been blindingly obvious for years.

Politicians are not expected to talk about moral absolutes. Raising questions about other people's choices, after all, could offend someone and nothing is less acceptable these days than causing someone offence. I certainly seem to have offended a lot of people in the past few days. I was severely criticised by some on the Left and a number of women have contacted me to say they felt insulted, pointing out that since becoming single parents at a young age, they had gone on to further and higher education and made a success of their lives. Which is brilliant. I have nothing but admiration for them.

But I was very specifically criticising our acceptance of those young women who lose all their educational and career opportunities because of their pregnancies and who spend the rest of their lives on benefit.

So why are so many on the Left angry at me? For some it is because they don't feel it is a problem; they believe that, as a rich society, we can afford to fund this 'lifestyle choice'. Others are uneasy at a Labour politician making judgments about other people's choices; I have 'no right' to put greater value on one person's choices than on another's, it seems. Still others fear I am adopting the rhetoric of the Right-wing by 'doing a Peter Lilley', the Social Security Secretary who caused controversy by lampooning benefits cheats with his 'I have a little list ...' Gilbert and Sullivan pastiche at the 1992 Tory conference - and by attacking vulnerable young women.

But I'm attacking no one. I am pointing out that we have an unacceptably high level of teenage pregnancies. I am stating a fact that, for many of these young women (and far fewer young men), parenthood will mean fewer opportunities and a higher chance of life on benefits. There is no doubt that raising yet another generation of young men in fatherless homes is a recipe for social disaster.

Yes, I'm generalising and, yes, there are plenty of homes where the absence of a violent, abusive father is a blessing to the mother and children. But common sense dictates that, in general, children benefit from having the love of a mother and a father. Yet what kind of society have we created when the above statement will inevitably be seen by some as offensive, narrow-minded and intolerable? As for the accusation of giving comfort to the 'Right-wing', when did it become 'Left-wing' to tolerate such a colossal waste of lives? Why is it 'Left-wing' to allow millions of people to remain on benefits instead of working? When did 'Labour' stop meaning 'work' and start to mean 'benefits'?

There are many others who believe the gradualist approach to moving people off benefits and into work is the right way to go. But my instinct tells me more radical measures will have to be introduced to see the step-change needed to make a real difference to the number of claimants. I know of some Ministers who would prefer this issue not to be raised, who would rather be able to get on with quietly and doggedly chipping away at the mountain of claimants, encouraging here, facilitating there, empowering here ...

But if more extreme measures, such as financial penalties for long-term claimants, need to be implemented in future, they will need public support. That means being absolutely honest about the scale of the problem and the devastation that long-term benefit dependency can cause.

I have written before about the responsibility the Thatcher Government bears for initiating the benefits dependency culture in the Eighties, when millions of redundant workers with no hope of further employment were encouraged to claim invalidity benefits to keep the headline jobless figures at a 'politically acceptable' level. That argument is still valid. But I don't care which government or politician was responsible for the problem 25 years ago. I don't want to know who is to blame for the fact that the problem has barely receded since then. The only thing that matters is that children are still getting each other pregnant and that their children will grow up without the life chances I think they deserve. And another generation is about to be lost to the benefits culture. No matter who wins the arguments in the TV newsrooms and the Commons about who should accept the blame, our society will remain hobbled by benefits dependency.

No single party, I'm convinced, has all the answers. James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, has proposed some of the most radical changes yet to the welfare state. But just because Labour is in Government does not give us a monopoly on solutions. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa May, the Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, have much to add to this debate, as has Frank Field, the Labour MP who was asked by Tony Blair to 'think the unthinkable' back in 1997, who did - and was sacked for his efforts.

It has taken nearly three decades of failure to get to this point. It could take us a similar time to repair the damage. So the sooner we start, the better. Instead of our political leaders blaming each other for our past failures, far better, surely, for them in years to come to be able to share the credit for their success by giving back hope and ambition to our young people.


The EU equality law that will let 'upset' atheists sue companies that hang up crucifixes

Organisations which hang crucifixes on walls could be sued if they upset atheists under equality laws proposed by the European Union. Any group offering a service to the public, including hospitals, charities, businesses and prisons, would be at risk. Legislation may also allow Christians to bring an action against a hotel if it displayed something they deemed offensive - such as a poster for the 1979 Monty Python film The Life Of Brian.

There are already laws banning harassment in the workplace, but the new Brussels regulations are designed to offer people protection from providers of goods and services. However, they are so broad that critics say they could lead to a spate of civil cases by anyone claiming their dignity has been violated by the 'hostile environment' of an organisation. The Church of England says hospices or charities for the homeless could face legal action if people using their services felt degraded by their religious practices or symbols, such as the cross. The Archbishops' Council even fears that charities could be challenged by atheists if grace is said before meals. The Law Society says religious believers may also be able to launch a civil action for harassment.

In an official submission to the EU, the society said: 'For instance, in a shop or shared lodging house, there may be a notice board on which is posted material that some of those who see it will find offensive on religious grounds (for instance, a poster for a film, such as The Life Of Brian).'

The proposals, which go before EU governments for approval later this year, are part of a new directive outlawing discrimination by businesses on the grounds of sexual orientation, age, disability or belief. If approved, it will become the latest in a swathe of European-inspired equality laws which critics say stifle freedom of speech and marginalise religion.

The Government tried to introduce a similar law in 2005 but dropped it after a resounding rejection by the House of Lords. Peers feared it would encourage politically correct officials to stop public expressions of religion, such as carol services or Bibles by hospital bedsides.

Simon Calvert, of the Christian Institute, said the proposed EU directive would 'open a Pandora's box'. He asked: 'What about Gideon Bibles in hotel bedrooms? Would councils ban nativity scenes from Christmas displays?' A spokeswoman for the Government Equalities Office, which is responsible for the EU directive, said it was felt that existing UK law was 'adequate'.


Prince Charles: 100 months to save the world

The Prince is undoubtedly well-intentioned but he does talk to trees and other plants so is best regarded with indulgent amusement

The Prince of Wales is to issue a stark warning that nations have "less than 100 months to act" to save the planet from irreversible damage due to climate change. Prince Charles will say that the need to tackle global warming is more urgent than ever before and that, even in a global recession, the world must not lose sight of the "bigger picture". His warning will be delivered on Thursday in a keynote speech in Rio de Janeiro. Aides believe it will echo one he gave in Sao Paulo in 1991 at the start of the last recession, when he warned that caring for the world's long term welfare must not become a "luxury". The intervention will help to put the environment at the top of the political agenda ahead of the meeting of G20 leaders in London next month.

The Prince starts a ten-day tour of South America today during which he will be playing an elevated role as an international statesman working on behalf of the Government to support British interests on key issues. Senior sources have revealed that Gordon Brown's Government wants to make more use on the foreign stage of Prince Charles's experience, expertise and contacts, particularly on climate change. Government officials believe that the Prince's passion to protect the environment is hugely respected abroad and that he can play an increasing important role as he inevitably moves closer to becoming king. Some believe he is an "asset" that has been underused in the past and they want to use him more in a role of "soft diplomacy".

In Thursday's speech, the Prince will warn that a failure to act in the next eight years will have catastrophic effects for the planet. In the country that is home to the world's largest rainforest, Prince Charles will urge world unity to combat deforestation in the run-up to the UN conference on climate change in Copenhagen in December this year. He will say there is not necessarily a clash between the needs of big business and the environment. He will argue that being green can be good for businesses and can create jobs. The Prince will say that tackling deforestation in the 3.5 billion acres of rainforest on the planet is a key priority....

It is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), not the Prince himself, which chooses the location for his royal tours and South America is considered the ideal platform for his views. One Government source said: "The Prince's visit to South America is very much in tune with the priorities that we have. "Given both the Prince's position as a future head of state and his personal commitment to protecting the environment, we believe he can have a real impact abroad"


The week in Warmism

By Christopher Booker, writing from Britain

How odd that, last Monday, none of our media global warming groupies should have bothered to report what was billed to be "the largest ever demonstration for civil disobedience over climate change". There was talk of hundreds of thousands of protestors converging on Washington to hear Jim Hansen, the scientist who talks of coal-fired power stations as "factories of death", call yet again for all coal plants to be closed. Perhaps the lack of coverage was due to the fact that, before Hansen arrived to address a forlorn group of several hundred hippies, Washington was blanketed in nearly a foot of snow.

It was generally another bad week for the warmists. The Met Office, which has been one of the chief pushers of the global warming scare for 20 years, had to admit that this has been "Britain's coldest winter for 13 years", despite its prediction last September that the winter would be "milder than average". This didn't of course stop it predicting that 2009 will be one of "the top-five warmest years on record".

US climate sceptics such as those on the Watts Up With That website, for whom the predictions of the UK Met Office have become a regular source of amusement, recalled its forecast that 2007 would be "the warmest year on record globally", just before global temperatures dived by nearly a full degree Celsius, cancelling out the entire net warming of the past 100 years.

Ever wilder wax the beleaguered warmists in their rhetoric. Our science minister Lord Drayson said last week he was "shocked" to find how many of the captains of industry he meets are "climate deniers". This was the same Lord Drayson who, as our defence procurement minister, assured Parliament in 2006 that Snatch Land Rovers afforded "the level of protection we need". The continuing death toll of soldiers in these unprotected vehicles approaches 40.

Even Drayson is outbid, however, by the groupies in The Guardian, who now suggest that people like Christopher Booker should no longer be compared to "Holocaust deniers" but consigned to even more outer darkness by branding them as climate "Creationists", the dirtiest word they know. Meanwhile at the University of the West of England in Bristol this weekend, a conference of "eco-psychologists", led by a professor, are solemnly exploring the notion that "climate change denial" should be classified as a form of "mental disorder".

I myself am off this weekend to New York, to join all the top "deniers", "creationists" and victims of psychic disorder at a conference organised by the Heartland Institute. It is an honour to be asked to speak alongside such luminaries as Professor Richard Lindzen of MIT, Dr Fred Singer, founder of the US satellite weather forecasting service, and the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus (not to mention those two revered climate bloggers, Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit and Anthony Watts). I shall report on this historic event next week.


Failings at NHS children's hospital put patients at risk, says watchdog

A leading children's hospital is to be censured by the NHS watchdog for endangering the safety of vulnerable young patients by offering them substandard care. The Healthcare Commission will issue a highly critical report on Birmingham Children's Hospital that will highlight numerous failings in both quality of care and management processes. The hospital announced yesterday that Paul O'Connor, the chief executive, had resigned with immediate effect.

The report will acknowledge that poorly trained staff, inadequate equipment and a lack of operating theatres led to some youngsters receiving poor care, including some whose health was put at risk. It will make a dozen recommendations for major improvements.

Gordon Brown and health secretary Alan Johnson asked the watchdog to investigate last November after the Observer published details of a secret internal NHS report. It revealed that about 20 senior doctors were deeply concerned that recurring problems at BCH were hampering the quality of treatment being offered to patients with life-threatening conditions involving their liver, kidney, heart or brain.

BCH chairman Joanna Davis yesterday confirmed that O'Connor "has tendered his resignation with immediate effect. He has not been removed from his position." She declined to comment on the watchdog's report, the result of a four-month "intervention" inquiry, until it is published. Whitehall sources say commission staff, led by its chief investigator Nigel Ellis, uncovered evidence that seemed to endorse many, but not all, the concerns aired by medical staff.

The report is also expected to confirm another key concern raised by doctors: that some patients unnecessarily underwent major surgery designed to diagnose or treat their conditions because BCH could not offer them interventional radiology, which is minimally invasive and seen as best practice in the NHS. This is despite doctors repeatedly recommending the hospital take action to address the issue.

One surgeon described the liver transplant service at BCH as so poorly run that it had become "a third-class service [that is] putting patients at risk". Another said parents were being told lies about the unnecessary procedures because they could not admit that BCH lacked the personnel and equipment to offer an alternative.


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