Tuesday, July 14, 2009

BBC standards are falling - and bosses are too scared to do anything about it

Peter Sissons, the veteran newsreader who announced his retirement last month, has launched a withering attack on the BBC - claiming standards have fallen and accusing producers of being too mired in political correctness to do anything about it.

Writing in The Mail on Sunday today, he says: 'At today's BBC, a complaint I often heard from senior producers was that they dared not reprimand their subordinates for basic journalistic mistakes - such as getting ages, dates, titles and even football scores wrong - it being politically incorrect to risk offending them.'

Mr Sissons, 66, who has worked for the BBC, ITV and Channel 4, says there was 'great attention' to the text of news bulletins when he joined the Corporation 20 years ago, but that now appeared to be lacking.

In a wide-ranging attack, he also claims it is now 'effectively BBC policy' to stifle critics of the consensus view on global warming. He says: 'I believe I am one of a tiny number of BBC interviewers who have so much as raised the possibility that there is another side to the debate on climate change. 'The Corporation's most famous interrogators invariably begin by accepting that "the science is settled", when there are countless reputable scientists and climatologists producing work that says it isn't. 'But it is effectively BBC policy... that those views should not be heard.'

He also takes a swipe at BBC executives for failing to defend him when he was criticised for wearing a burgundy tie on the day the Queen Mother died in 2002. He says a senior executive urged him to wear the burgundy tie, but that the BBC then said it had been his own choice.

The reaction of BBC 'top brass' to coverage of the death of Princess Diana also rankles. 'We did a lot to be proud of that day,' he says. 'Some weeks afterwards, the top brass took themselves off to a Cambridge hotel to congratulate each other. None of the footsoldiers who actually made the programmes was invited.'

Mr Sissons once accused the BBC of ageism, saying he had attended 'too many' leaving parties for people over 50.


British Labour Party fails working class on education

The social mobility czar is to accuse ministers of doing too little to get poor pupils into top universities. Favours aptitude tests (like the American SAT?) as an alternative route to admission! Utter heresy to the modern British Left but it was advocated by the British Left of yesteryear

Gordon Brown's social mobility czar is set to brand Labour’s attempts to bring more working-class pupils into top universities a failure. In a report to be released next week, Alan Milburn, the Blairite former health secretary, is expected to warn that too few bright teenagers from poor families are winning places at leading universities.

The main reason he is likely to identify is the sub-standard education provided by too many state schools, meaning bright pupils are held back from winning good enough A-level grades. Others are deterred by negative advice from staff who guide pupils into low-skilled jobs, assuming they are unsuited to higher education. In addition, much of the £400m spent by the government on schemes to attract more students from deprived backgrounds has been wasted.

Milburn, who has announced he will retire from parliament at the next election, was commissioned by the prime minister in January to report on ways in which more young working-class adults could win jobs in professions such as the law, medicine and teaching. The panel he chairs is likely to conclude that one of the main brakes on social mobility into the professions is slow progress in increasing the number of students from deprived families. Figures released last month showed a slight fall in the proportion from these groups studying at university. The government spends hundreds of millions of pounds on university schemes to attract such candidates and help them through the admissions process. This costs about £10,000 per person, but it is thought many of those who apply would do so regardless of special initiatives.

The report is expected to condemn “positive discrimination” whereby some universities give preferential treatment to any applicant from a poorly performing school. At the same time, however, Milburn is understood to praise more targeted methods. One his panel favours is used by some medical schools - talented pupils from deprived backgrounds can be offered degree places if they achieve lower grades than other candidates, but only if they pass aptitude tests.

Lee Elliot Major, research director of the Sutton Trust, a charity promoting social mobility, said Britain was in the grip of an “education freeze”. “Even when the economy is doing well, children from poorer backgrounds are still only half as likely to attend university as those from more privileged families and even this could understate the problem,” he said.

Milburn’s panel - whose members range from Baroness Shephard, the former Tory education secretary, to Lord Rees, president of the Royal Society - is expected to cite evidence that state school pupils perform at least as well at university as those from independent schools who have scored two grades higher at A-level. This implies that they have been held back by their schools from achieving their full potential.

The findings, which will be seen as an indictment of Labour’s education policies, are likely to anger senior figures such as Ed Balls, the schools secretary. Many in the Labour party have blamed ingrained snobbery at universities for shutting out working-class pupils.

Geoffrey Vos, chairman of the Social Mobility Foundation and a member of Milburn’s panel, said: “Raising the aspirations of pupils ought to be utterly uncontroversial, but it is not always happening.”

Milburn’s report, which has not yet been completed, will focus largely on what the professions themselves can do to widen the social mix of new recruits. It is likely to include steps to pick apart the networking advantages enjoyed by middle-class children. Posts for unpaid work experience and internships, for example, should be filled by formal selection processes rather than word of mouth.

Meanwhile, undergraduates studying for professional degrees should be recruited to a national mentoring network for comprehensive pupils. This would make them more likely to consider going into the professions in a way that those at private and grammar schools instinctively do.

One source said Milburn wants his recommendations to have cross-party support so they have a chance of surviving if the Tories come to power. He is anxious not to alienate middle-class parents worried that children at private and grammar schools will be edged out of leading universities. “Universities have to be carefully nuanced and not attack private schools,” said the source.


British Pupils need lessons in how to speak properly

Children should be taught to speak more formally in class to improve their written work, according to new research. Teachers need to do more work to improve children's vocabulary and make it clear when the use of slang and colloquialisms are not acceptable, academics have found.

The study from Exeter University, which analysed pupils' writing, discovered that whilst more able writers composed sentences in standard English, weaker writers tended to replicate patterns found in speech.

Researchers concluded that the more opportunities children had in class for developing their speech and distinguishing between styles of language, the better their writing would become. "This is less about correcting their English than making sure that they are aware of what they are saying and giving them access to different repertoires," said Professor Debra Myhill, author of the study. "They need to be aware of what they are saying and when, and be able to make choices about their speech, otherwise they will lose out in areas such as the job market."

The study comes in the wake of growing recognition that the school curriculum has neglected the development of children's speech. The Government's Rose Review, published in May, stressed the "central importance" of speaking and listening as part of literacy. Critics claim that in some schools very young children are being taught to read and write before they can string a sentence together. With older children, chief examiners have revealed a growing tendency for pupils to lapse into the vernacular in exams scripts, using slang and inappropriate expressions.

Pieces of writing from children aged 12 to 15 were analysed as part of the Exeter study, published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology. It found that children understood that writing was not simply "talk written down". However, weaker writers used patterns familiar in speech, for instance consistently putting the subject first instead of varying their sentence structure. They also had a more restricted vocabulary reminiscent of the more limited selection of words used in speech.

"In order to develop children's writing more, we need to develop children's talking more," said Prof Myhill. "It is not just about using standard English, it is about having more opportunities in class for children to elaborate, justify their decisions, discuss their ideas and give them access to a broader and richer vocabulary, though reading widely and word searches. "We know that in classrooms that continually provide children with talk opportunities, there will almost certainly be a positive influence on their writing."

The professor said there was a general trend to be less formal in speech and writing. "If you look at the television or newspapers over the past 50 years, the language is less formal. Children's speech and writing is mirroring a much bigger cultural trend. "It is not so much about right and wrong, it is about children having repertoires and judgement. Children need to be able to consciously decide to speak or write in a particular way or not."


British youngsters view Bible 'as old fashioned'

KNOWLEDGE of the Bible is in decline in Britain, with fewer than one in 20 people able to name all Ten Commandments and youngsters viewing the Christian holy book as "old fashioned", a survey said today.

Forty per cent did not know that the tradition of exchanging Christmas presents originated from the story of the Wise Men bringing gifts for the infant Jesus, while 60 per cent could not name anything about the Good Samaritan, the Durham University study found.

Youngsters were particularly disillusioned, telling researchers that the Bible was "old fashioned", "irrelevant" and for "Dot Cottons" - a reference to the church-going EastEnders' character, the National Biblical Literacy Survey 2009 showed. "It is the first recognition of something which we all knew in our gut. We knew it was there but we weren't exactly willing to face up to it," said Rev Brian D. Brown, a visiting fellow at St.John's College in Durham University.

One respondent to the survey said David and Goliath was the name of a ship while another thought Daniel, who survived being thrown into the lions' den, was "The Lion King".

Rev Brown said the survey showed the need to push for greater religious education among young people as knowledge of the Bible among the under-45 age group was in decline. "We have got to recognise that it (the Bible) is the foundation of our society, upon which our whole culture has been based," he said. "To understand it and to live in it you do need an understanding of the Bible."

Atheists, however, were not unduly worried about the decline in the Bible's popularity. "It shows really that religion is becoming less important to people," said Pepper Harow, campaigns officer at the British Humanist Association. "The fact that people have little knowledge of the Bible perhaps suggests that it's becoming less and less relevant to people in the 21st century," she said.

Despite the lack of enthusiasm about the Bible among the 900 respondents, three-quarters said they owned one and almost a third said it was significant in their lives.


British officialdom snipes at Prince Charles’s ‘misguided’ green thinking

Senior government figures have revealed serious concerns about the Prince of Wales’s “misguided” green philosophy, which advocates dramatic changes in lifestyle and attitudes as the key to saving the world. One senior Whitehall source dismissed Prince Charles’s green vision as “fatuous”, and others were equally dismissive. The rift illustrates just how politically charged the environmental issues on which Charles has campaigned for decades have now become.

He has long called on people and politicians to rethink their attitudes to the planet, economic growth and consumption. Recently, however, government policy has become based on the notion that problems such as climate change are best addressed through science and technology - without compromising economic growth or consumerism. This difference is becoming a source of tension, and some of Charles’s aides are planning for him to continue to make public his opinions when he eventually becomes king.

Charles, who gave the Richard Dimbleby lecture last week, took care to endorse the climate-change report of the former Downing Street adviser Lord Stern, who, he said, had “set out the case as to why, even in traditional economic terms, it is quite irrational to continue as we are”.

But he went much further, saying our consumerist society had brought the world to the brink of collapse, and warning that “nature, the biggest bank of all, could go bust”.

A senior Whitehall source, while not directly criticising the prince, said a “misconceived” ideology lay at the heart of the green position on tackling climate change, wrongly seeking to change our whole way of life. “We are aiming to cut emissions by a third in the next 10 years and then by 80% in the next four decades. These things are not happening because the population has had a green psychological transformation,” he said. “If that were true, we’d never get anywhere, we’d never have got rid of slavery or brought in seatbelts or abolished hanging. No social change is force-driven by mass psychological change. It is about government leading and people changing accordingly.

“Within its core, represented strongly in organisations such as Friends of the Earth andGreenpeace, environmentalism still has an ideological greenness that does not like the way we live and does not believe this is what creates fundamentally decent society. That continues to infect the way they think about the changes that we need, so in that sense it is fundamentally wrong.”

Charles has selected two former directors of Friends of the Earth (FoE) to advise him: Jonathon Porritt, who ran FoE from 1984-90, and Tony Juniper, who quit last year for the Prince’s Rainforest Project. Craig Bennett, a former FoE campaigner, co-directs the Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change. Last year the prince also recruited Benet Northcote, former chief policy adviser for Greenpeace UK, as his deputy private secretary. Charles’s green advisers contributed to the speech, which contained pointed references to the management of the economy. He said the Earth could no longer afford consumerism, and that the “age of convenience” was over.

A senior Whitehall source sought to avoid criticising the prince personally, and said: “We would never say that Prince Charles is wrong. It all helps. I would not say that it is of no use, but that it is not enough and we are going to get on with it anyway.” However, he also said lifestyle and thinking changes - which have been advocated by Charles - were “third-order issues” in terms of the impact they have in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. They included making personal decisions, such as to cycle or walk to work rather than drive, or to take holidays within Britain, or to eat meat only once a week.


Swearing can help reduce pain

Even the most mild-mannered of individuals have been known to utter the odd expletive in moments of intense pain. Now it seems they have the perfect excuse. Swearing helps reduce pain, according to new research.

A study of responses to pain found that people who cursed in response to pain could cope with being hurt for nearly 50 per cent longer than their clean-speaking peers.

When they started their research, experts at Keele University's School of Psychology thought that cursing would lower pain tolerance. But after monitoring the reactions of 64 volunteers, stunned research leader Dr Richard Stephens and colleagues John Atkins and Andrew Kingston found that swearing actually had a beneficial effect. Last night Dr Stephens told how he came up with the idea for the study after blurting out a swear word when he accidentally hit his thumb with a hammer as he built a shed in his garden.

The 64 undergraduates were subjected to a gruelling ice water test to see how the cursing affected their pain tolerance. First they had to submerge their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as possible while repeating a swearword of their choice. Then they repeated the exercise - but using a word they would choose to describe a table. Despite initial expectations, researchers found volunteers could keep their hands in ice for longer when repeating the swear word. On average, the students could put up with the pain for nearly two minutes when swearing. By contrast when they refrained from using expletives they could only endure the ice for one minute and 15 seconds.

Researchers believe swearing has a pain-reducing effect because it triggers the body's natural fight-or-flight response. They suggest that the accelerated heart rates of the volunteers repeating the swearword indicates an increase in aggression, in a classic fight-or-flight response of downplaying being hurt in favour of a more pain-tolerant machismo.

Dr Stephens said it was clear the swearing triggered both an emotional and a physical response. 'We are not sure why swearing works like this, but when it happens it's accompanied by an increase in heart rate,' he said. 'It could be the aggression of swearing, the machismo, makes you more pain resistant.'

While surprised by the results he added: 'It might explain why the centuries-old practice of cursing developed and still persists today.' For those who think that the results may give a green card to turning the air blue, Dr Stephens did, however, have a word of warning. 'If they want to use this pain-lessening effect to their advantage they need to do less casual swearing and only do it when they really need it.'

Rohan Byrt, spokesman for the Casual Swearing Appreciation Society, said he thought the study was the first time swearing's benefits had been proved. He said:'"I've always thought that swearing does have some real therapeutic merit. 'Even for those who consider themselves clean spoken, the odd swear word will just slip out. For me, it's almost a natural instinct, a gut reaction'


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