Allow me to tell you a story. Once upon a time, there was a media organisation called News International. They owned a number of powerful media sources, including the Times, The Sun, The News of The World and a big chunk of BSkyB TV. And that was just in the UK. News International’s parent company was News Corporation, which was run by a chap named Rupert Murdoch and also owned important things like Fox News, 20th Century Fox, HarperCollins and the Wall Street Journal. Such was the power of this media organisation, many former employees went on to become members of UK parliament, and many former (and current) members of parliament ended up writing columns for News International papers. A charming young man named Michael Gove was a leader writer at the Times. He subsequently became a member of Parliament, maintaining a useful contract (valued at £5000/month) to write for News International. Happily, whilst at the Times, he met and fell in love with his wife Sarah Vine – who still writes for the Times on important international issues such as advising readers “how to be a perfect housewife“, including the delightful suggestion “As to sex, you’ll soon be down to doing it once a month while the children are at granny’s, so really he should get accustomed to the idea now.”.
Even after becoming the Secretary of State for Education, Michael – perhaps in gratitude to his former employers – found time to accept a contract from HarperCollins to write a book. His friend, David Cameron, became Prime Minister (after a troubled campaign where the greatest turning point was the accidental broadcasting of the incumbent PM’s ungarded comments on a member of the public by Sky News), a cause of great delight for his neighbour and riding partner Rebekah Brooks, now Chair of News International, and also to his director of communications, Andy Coulson – who also used to work for News International. Meanwhile, at News Corp, things weren’t looking quite so rosy. The internet was rendering many of Mr Murdoch’s business interests less and less profitable. Information was indeed turning out to be free, and an attempt to monetise his high-cost acquisition of the once-popular MySpace demonstrated that he did not understand this brave new world. So he and his son James concentrated on lobbying for tighter controls on media “piracy”, building paywalls to hide behind (and ensuring I can’t link to the sources I want to), and searching for a new revenue stream. Late in 2009, he found it. Educational technology. Moving quickly, he bought a number of existing companies in the area, and brought in former head of the New York Public Schools System, Joel Klein, to lead this new initiative. Joel had left his previous job under something of a cloud, having sacked Columbia University academic Rashid Khalidi from his teacher training programme because he didn’t like his views on Israel and Palestine. However Rupert (much like his friend David Cameron) believed in giving people a second chance. Joel Klein became friends with Michael Gove, and in January 2011 Gove invited Klein to speak at his conference about “free schools” in UK education. Klein’s also found time to give an interview to News International’s “Sunday Times” during this visit – and this interview included the dynamic assertion that “It’s easier to prosecute a capital-punishment case in the US than terminate an incompetent teacher.” But speaking at the inaugral New Schools conference, he was clearer about his aims for education. “Last, to shake up the system, we must change how we use technology to deliver instruction. (This is what I’m now seeking to do at News Corporation.)… [O]ne of the best things we could do is hire fewer teachers and pay more to the ones we hire. And, as in any other field, technology can help get us there. If you have 5,000 math teachers, many of whom are underperforming, significantly improving overall quality is nearly impossible. But if you get the best math professors in the world—who are great teachers and who deeply understand math—and match them with great software developers, they can create sophisticated interactive programs that engage kids and empower teachers.” Happily, Michael Gove and David Cameron displayed the foresight to abolish BECTA in 2010, BECTA being the organisation charged with supporting schools in using ICT to ensure that they don’t get ripped off by unscrupulous vendors making over-egged claims about the power of educational software. This was a controversial and unexpected decision, later criticised by the Public Administration Committee, and by experts in secure IT provision.
Parallel to this, Gove had set up the facility for parents to set up “their own” schools, with the support of the fine services offered by the growing private sector. So Joel’s delightful dreams of breaking teacher union power and selling schools expensive software could come true here in the UK, and his friends David Cameron and Michael Gove had managed independently to do the exact things that he needed to move this dream forward – just like in New York! Sadly, this is not a story with happy ending. In July 2011, it emerged that David’s friend Rebekah, and his former communications director (but still his friend) Andy, were implicated in a major scandal involving bribing police officers and intercepting the voice mail message of terrorism and murder victims. Such was the outcry that Rupert had to fly over to visit his friend David, and Rebekah had to resign. Happily Rupert (and David) knew just the man to solve this difficult problem of Rupert losing lots of money and power: Joel Klein!
Post-script: I am not an investigative journalist, I’m an education blogger. All of this I brought together over one lunch-break in front of Google. If I can do this in an hour and feel reasonably confident in it, how much more could a real journalist do?
This post represents my personal opinions, and not those of my employers, projects, or programmes I am or have been responsible for. This post is available under a CC-BY license.