SubScribe: February 2013 Google+

Friday, 22 February 2013

Auntie's bloomers are hung out to dry

It was always disappointing to come home from school on a Thursday to discover that Jimmy Savile would be presenting Top of the Pops. The programme, along with Ready  Steady Go, was the highlight of the week, so the choice of presenter was important.
They had all come from Radio Luxembourg -  David Jacobs, Pete (later Peter) Murray, Alan Freeman and Savile - so their voices were familiar from furtive listening under the eiderdown. We knew what David Jacobs looked like from Juke Box Jury, but to see rather than hear the others had been a revelation. None of them was what you'd call sexy, but Savile was simply odd, and no one I knew liked him.
When you're 12 you have instinct, but not the honed bullshit detector that comes with experience. We didn't like Savile because he seemed to regard himself as being on the same level as the musicians who came to mime on the show. And he patently wasn't. In those days big names appeared on TOTP, and I mean big names: the Beatles, the Stones, the Who, Tom Jones. The other DJs showed due deference.
Through the Sixties and Seventies, Savile's profile grew and grew: the charity walks, the marathons, Jim'll Fix It. Somehow they were all about him and not about the people he was purporting to help. Breathing cigar smoke and jangling bracelets and chains, there was something sinister as he invited some little poppet to sit on his knee asking her: 'Have I made your dream come true?' before pointing  to his cheek and instructing her to plant a kiss 'just there.'. Still, everyone on television said how wonderful he was, so maybe I just didn't get it. A mysterious greatness that needed explanation, like Gerard Manley Hopkins or the Ancient bloody Mariner.
It didn't occur to me that he was a child molester. I just didn't like him.

No doubt a lot of people who didn't know his dark (and apparently open) secrets thought the same. It's easy to imagine that his despicable tastes were common knowledge around the BBC. As Jeremy Paxman told Nick Pollard's inquiry into the corporation's handling of the Savile story,  'It was...common gossip that Jimmy Savile liked young...I don't know whether it was girls or boys...but I had no evidence of it.'
Today we know only too well that we were all correct in our instincts, that there was something strange about him. As individuals we can avoid such people and mutter  what we think of them to each other, but as news organisations we cannot report rumour as fact. Nor, indeed, can we make insinuations as Cassandra (William Connor) did so expensively  in his magnificent appraisal of Liberace for the Daily Mirror in 1956.

'This appalling man...reeks with emetic language. Without doubt, he is the biggest sentimental vomit of all time. Slobbering over his mother...and counting the cash at every second, this superb piece of calculating candy-floss as an answer for every situation.
'There must be something wrong with us that our teenagers longing for sex and our middle-aged matrons fed up with sex alike should fall for such a sugary mountain of jingling claptrap wrapped up in  such a preposterous clown.'

He may have been writing about a glittery pianist half a century ago, but the description fits Savile to T,  right down to the peculiar sanctification of his mother. Publishing or broadcasting such thoughts, though, is fraught.

The BBC has been on the rack for months over Savile's long career of abuse and the ham-fisted way it dealt with Newsnight's investigation into his activities just as a tribute was  programme being prepared as a Christmas special in 2011. The screws were tightened when ITV broadcast its own documentary last November; then  Panorama joined the torturers with its take on the squabbling and mismanagement inside the BBC. Today the corporation is back in the punishment room after publication of evidence given to its internal inquiry under Nick Pollard. Apart from the substance of the text, there is further furore over the abundance of marker pan amid the typescript.

The BBC is seen as having failed on two fronts: in employing a man for decades in the face of strong hearsay evidence that he was a predatory paedophile, and for stifling the in-house investigative journalism that would have exposed his activities. 
Sharing the dock with the BBC on the first count are the likes of Stoke Mandeville Hospital and a dozen other organisations that saw Savile not as a wicked man but as a cash cow. Scores of people are hanging their heads in shame that they did not - or would not - see what he was or take action to stop him.
Paxman's evidence to Pollard is relevant to this in that he says that when the BBC had to embrace the  crowd from the pirate radio stations, they didn't know how to handle them. They were aliens, from another culture. This, remember, was the dawn of the era of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, of anything goes. If the BBC wanted to keep these hip guys it had to accept that joints would be rolled and sheets would be crumpled. Even if it had recognised what was going on, it wouldn't have had a clue how to deal with it.
That is not to excuse decades of inertia, but to explain how Savile was able to establish a modus operandi and eventually come to believe that no matter how outrageous he was, nothing could touch him. Sadly, as we know from countless inquiries and scandals, abuse of  children in borstals, special hospitals, hostels and orphanages was rife for at least three-quarters of the 20th century. The vicitims did not dare complain and even had they attempted to, who could they have confided in? Who would have listened to them, let alone believed them?

Today, however, it is on the second count that the BBC is being put on trial - for killing a story that was in the public interest simply because it was inconvenient. All good stories have their  heroes and villains. The Newsnight journalist Meirion Jones is the hero, the entire upper echelon of the BBC is the villain, and the Newsnight editor Peter Rippon the fallguy. We all love Paxo, so he has to take a major part on the side of the good guys - even though in truth his evidence is hardly telling. He didn't know what they were working on, beyond 'something about Savile', and he didn't even realise that there was anything wrong with the decision to pull the story  'until the shit hit the fan'.

So how culpable is the BBC journalistically?
By Paxman's admission, 'famous DJ turns out to be nasty man' is not your typical Newsnight story. 'I don't find it surprising,' he told the Pollard inquiry, 'that some people said "Look this isn't really for us." It is not our normal sort of territory...You don't see this sort of stuff very much on - or indeed at all - on Newsnight. One can understand why people might say "It is not our sort of thing." It is not.' Indeed, Paxman went so far as to say that the programme had never before tackled this sort of material.
So he appears to have been ambivalent about the story while his editor and reporters were  arguing and agonising over the fate of their work and how it appeared to be at the mercy of a totally inappropriate tribute show.
A year later, though, Paxman started to sit up and take notice.  A few days before ITV broadcast  its documentary, he urged his editor to run the story the Newsnight team had been preparing. The trailers and pre-publicity had clearly set him thinking.
Asked when he had concluded that the decision the previous year not to run the story was wrong, Paxman was open: 'To be perfectly frank..when the shit hit the fan...around the time the ITV thing aired.' This, he said, was because he thought the BBC had behaved  like other authority figures who disbelieved vulnerable institutionalised children who complained about abuse. Paxman didn't watch the ITV show, nor even Panorama's hairshirt follow-up.

At the height of the furore it seemed utterly bonkers that Peter Rippon, above, could seriously think  that the failings of Surrey Police and the CPS in not pursuing Savile was a better story than the stark facts his own team had unearthed. To any right-thinking individual, let alone journalist, it was clear as day that the real story was the exposure of a serial paedophile who had been a welcome guest in most people's living rooms, not about some bungling coppers.
But if you look at Rippon's assertion in the context of Paxman's evidence that it was not a 'Newsnight story' it doesn't seem quite so daft - a point Nick Pollard himself picked up on in his questioning of Paxman. Think of it in terms of a Guardian reporter finding a vicars and tarts story. Not quite our sort of thing, old chap.
Of course, this story is much, much bigger than any old vicar having his wicked way with any number of tarts. Rippon was at fault if he did not recognise as much, and  if he did, shouldn't he have  supported and encouraged his reporters in their investigations and helped them to find a more appropriate outlet within the BBC for their efforts? 

But there is another aspect. Who takes their own organisation to the cleaners? Would The Sunday Times have gone to town on the hacking story if it had uncovered it first? Once the Goodman-Mulcaire trial was over in 2007, anyone could have gone digging. Only The Guardian did, while the NI papers, in their ignorance, thought the rival paper was simply indulging in a witch hunt. Would the Telegraph have exposed Conrad Black's financial shenanigans? 
Should we really have expected a late-night current affairs programme with its small and dwindling audience  to blow this scandal open?
As journalists, we naturally think it should have done. But it's easy to say that from a distance and with hindsight.

The rest of the world loves the BBC;  other broadcasters and newspaper publishers - and many politicans - hate it. It tramples all over their territory without having to earn its keep. When advertising is slack, and newspapers have to offer their product in half a dozen formats with ever-decreasing resources,  it grates that the Beeb can run its worldwide operations, a dozen radio and television stations and a website - and pay the likes of Gary Lineker more than £1m a year - all at taxpayers' expense. The commercial TV and radio networks have the same antipathy.
The Beeb's enemies moan when it goes for ratings, complaining that it is competing for the mass market on a sloping playing field; they moan again when it splashes out a fortune on Jeremy Clarkson's Top Gear antics (which I believe are the corporation's biggest source of international revenue); and they moan still more when it makes niche programmes for tiny audiences - why is the taxpayer funding entertainment for the minority?

Jeremy Paxman, who is reported to be one of 15 in the 'half-million club', belatedly found his journalistic scruples offended by the spiking of the Newsnight story, yet by the time of the Nick Pollard inquiry he was happy to blast off about the entire organisation. His perception of the way the BBC is run may be accurate, but it still leaves a nasty taste. If it's so terrible, why does he stay?
Emperor Chris Patten has also denounced the top-heavy structure of the corporation, which has a budget of £750m and employs nearly 8,000 people. Patten has been in charge of this unweildy and apparently ungovernable empire throughout the Savile saga, yet he speaks -  as  Dan Sabbagh pointed out on Twitter - as though it had nothing to do with him.

It is open season on the BBC. When it comes to Jimmy Savile, the corporation has got a heck of a lot frighteningly and disgracefully wrong. But as you read Saturday's newspaper accounts, with their Paxo pix and 'BBC is pathetic' headings, listen for the sound of axes grinding in the background.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

A little knowledge...

She describes herself as a bit ditzy, she's blonde, uses spray tan and fake nails - and she lives in Essex. But don't fall for the stereotype. Lauren Marbe is no TOWIE airhead; she packs more brainpower than Einstein.
Or so we were told today by The Times, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Mirror, the Sun and assorted websites. All reported that the 16-year-old Loughton schoolgirl had scored 161 in a Mensa IQ test, 'beating' Einstein's IQ of 160.
It is compulsory for all stories about clever people to make reference to Einstein, just as it is for weather reporters to compare the temperature in Bournemouth with that in Malaga or Cairo if the sun comes out for more than a couple of days.
There is no doubt that pictures of pretty girls liven up news pages.  Men like looking at them, women like looking at them. But it helps if there is some justifcation, a figleaf of newsworthiness, and a complete absence of patronising cliches.

My heart sank when I saw this on The Times's iPad edition:

Not bad for an Essex blonde? Whatever next? The tone of the caption is offensive, screaming 'hey, a good looker who has a brain, who would have thought it?' But my despair was over the fact that her IQ score was being reported at all. There was no context, beyond the inevitable mention of Einstein, and  it was clearly more important for the writer/sub to use the few words available to mention the fake tan and TOWIE than to put her achievement into perspective.

A quick swirl round the laptop with our faithful friend Google suggested that I was suffering from news-sense failure. Most other papers had carried the story - and Lauren's triumph had reached Australia, Kuala Lumpur, America and Brazil. She was also, understandably, the star of her local rag, the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian.
Here we discovered that she was one of 29 pupils from Roding Valley High School to take the test. Lauren was among five to emerge with an IQ of more than 148, high enough to be invited to join Mensa, and one of ten to score more than 135 - apparently putting them in the top 1 per cent of the world's population. 
Well, my goodness. What are the chances of that? A third of a random group of children from the same school turn out to be cleverer than 99 per cent of everyone else in the world. Amazing. People will be queueing outside the estate agents at dawn to find homes in the catchment area.

The teenagers took what is known as the Cattell IIIb intelligence test, which is one of a number of recognised IQ tests. Others include Wechsler, Ravens and Culture Fair. Every test starts on the premise that the mean score will be 100. The scale then fans out in either direction to cover the most mentally disabled at one end and geniuses at the other.  Realistic comparisons of  IQs can be made only if we know which test was taken.  Children who sit Cattell at Mensa in London can record a maximum IQ of 162, adults a maximum of 161.
To qualify for Mensa membership you have to score 148 on Cattell, but only 132 on Wechsler. Such scores will put you in the top 2 per cent of the population.
(Hang on, isn't 135 enough to put you into the world's top 1 per cent? Yes -  but our population is more intelligent on these measures than the world in general.)

The Cattell IIIb curve

Which brings us to Mr Einstein. Which did he take? Er, well actually he never took an IQ test. Someone somewhere once estimated that if he had, he would have scored between 160 and 180. For some reason the 160 figure stuck.
And what about other superbrains mentioned in coverage of the Lauren story? Charles Dickens at 180, Galileo at 185? Did they sit down and compare squares and triangles and fill in missing numbers?
Of course they didn't. In 1926 an American psychologist called Catharine Cox compiled a list of estimated IQs for 300 historical greats. She assessed their intelligence on the basis of biographies, books, school reports and even anecdotes about their lives up to the age of 26.  She then graded them in line with yet another index  - the Stanford-Binet, which was developed in the early years of the last century.  
The figures were later adjusted to take into account movements of the mean score - ie the number of people on the 100 point line - over the centuries. As new generations take old tests, scores rise, perhaps through better education, perhaps through better nutrition,  and the average  no longer sits on the 100 line. That means tests have to be updated regularly to hold the line, and equally past scores need to be downgraded to make any meaningful comparison with the results of modern tests. Thus Galileo had his (hypothetical) rating of 185 reduced to 163, while Darwin's fell from 165 to 143. 

(Funnily enough,the papers all chose to make their comparisons with the higher  figure 
 - there must have been  a glimmer of sense that told them that it was unlikely  that 
 Lauren was cleverer than Leonardo da Vinci - 180 on Cox's estimate, reduced to 158.)
Goethe emerged  from the Cox exercise as the greatest intellect, with a score of 210/188. Interesting as it may have been, Ms Cox was essentially indulging in a sophisticated parlour game, as pundits do now when they create cricket matches in which Dennis Lillee bowls to WG Grace. In terms of  accuracy, the results bear comparison with Auntie Maud's interpretation of Gone With the Wind after an afternoon on the Christmas sherry. 

And Stephen Hawking? and Bill Gates? They're still with us, so do we  know their IQs?  When asked outright, both modestly declined to divulge.  Hawking replied 'People who brag about their IQs are losers', while Gates said 'I took some tests when I was younger, I did well. But I'm good at gooky tests.'  Even so, the consensus today is that they both rank at 160  - and thus information gleaned from a swift google is regurgitated over and over as gospel.

So back to young Lauren and her moment  in the spotlight. How unusual is her score? And how original is today's reporting of it? Well here she is on the Mail website ...and here's Olivia Manning, who featured last October...

...also in October,  Fabiola Mann, a 15-year-old London student hailing from Goa, earned her place in Mensa, as had Jatin Chunilal, 12, of Edgware, the previous July. Both scored the maximum of 162. For some inexplicable reason the Mail did not report these achievements....

...but it had gushed about Victoria Cowie's score in April 2011, and a year later we were all agog when the youngest star, little Heidi Hankins of Winchester, qualified for Mensa at the age of four. Irritatingly, she failed by a single point to match Einstein and Hawking....  


Well, we were always told there's nothing new under the sun. Not even pretty smart girls.

Heidi's achievement did, however, prompt one journalist - the American science writer Stephanie Pappas -  to put the $64,000 question to Mensa. Was the child really a point behind Einstein? Frank Lawlis, American Mensa's supervisory psychologist, blew the fantasy out of the water, saying  it was impossible to compare a child's IQ scores with an adult's.
 'All you're doing is testing within a certain age group. You're saying that the four-year-old is smarter than 99.5 or 99.8 per cent of her age group, but that doesn't mean you can compare to another age group.' 
And, presumably, not to a long dead physicist who never took a test anyway.

The fact is, Mensa offers a bulk purchase deal on intelligence testing for schools and colleges. The organisation says it helps the teachers to identify their gifted pupils, and that it can give both the schools and the children a boost.
It also generates income and publicity.
There's nothing wrong with that. But if our media decide to report the results as news (presumably on the basis of a Mensa press release or a local correspondent's pitch), they might at least do the reader the courtesy of checking whether anything like this has happened before and whether it has any significance. 
And if they still want to proceed, then perhaps they could vary the presentation - and leave Einstein out of it.

How do you see the future of journalism? Do you still have a paper delivered or pick one up at the station on the way to work? Do you prefer print, Kindle or iPad? Or have you given up on the mainstream media and switched to Twitter and blogs? Please join in the SubScribe survey here. Thank you.