The Press Complaints Commission justly condemned me. Which is odd. British newspaper regulation is a travestyby Alex Renton / August 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Dunce’s cap on, I stand in the corner. I am ashamed. I am the Worst Journalist in Britain. It is, as they say, official.
The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade, school prefect to the British press, was gleeful when he rang to tell me about the Press Complaints Commission’s adjudication on an article of mine in the Evening Standard. “No journalist,” said Greenslade, “has ever been found in breach of three clauses of the code of conduct in one article. It’s a record.” The judgement (there are about 60 a year) was among the most severe he’d seen in ten years of the PCC’s life.
This, briefly, was the sin: in March this year, I got permission to sit for a week in a class of eight-year-olds in a north London primary school. I did it by lying. I said I was thinking about becoming a teacher. Did I feel happy about that? No. But it seemed necessary. A sad truth about Britain’s paranoid public services today is that, for a journalist, subterfuge works where straight questioning doesn’t.
In diary form, I wrote up what I’d seen and what the teachers, keen that I be under no illusions, had told me: a story of good people, overworked and under-paid, trying to keep an enterprise afloat in a cruel sea of neglect. Teachers were scarce, classes too large, security inadequate, and, most disturbing of all, the statutory support systems had seized up. The failure of social services to do their job helping with a high number of obviously troubled children was, one teacher said, “disgusting” (20 per cent of the pupils at the school are asylum-seekers, though they seemed less disturbed than some of the children raised in Kilburn). None of these problems are new, but seeing them close up was fascinating. I wrote a piece I was rather proud of. Anyone reading it, I reckoned, would conclude that the school was doing a pretty effective job despite the failings of the local authority, Brent, and by extension the government.
The piece ran at unusual length in the Standard. It was rather sensationally billed, but that’s the price a reporter has to pay. Colleagues-many of them, like me, London parents-liked it. A couple of teacher friends sent approving e-mails. And then the parents’ letters came in. My piece was “racist.” It was a “prejudiced assault on the state education system” (this from…