At the risk of trespassing on the territory Anton covers so well, I couldn’t help flagging up this story in today’s Mail as a shining example of how a political correctness story gets going. Furthermore, this revolves, as usual, around Harriet Harman, who seems to press a very particular button in the strange world of the Mail:
Labour is opening up a new front in its obsession with equal rights. It wants to stamp out prejudice against… Northerners.
The extraordinary plans are being dreamed up by Harriet Harman, the Government’s equalities supremo and Gordon Brown’s deputy.
Extraordinary? So what exactly is Lady Harman planning to do?
The Mail on Sunday has learned that she wants to introduce rules to halt discrimination against people from ‘up North’ and other regions, and has instructed her Equalities Office to look at ‘diversity proposals’ to stop Londoners and other Southerners lording it over the rest of the country.
Equalities Minister Michael Foster said the intention was to prevent membership of the boards of national public bodies being too ‘London-centric or South-East-centric’.
His remark will spark fears that hundreds of public organisations – from the Arts Council to the Big Lottery Fund – will be required to have special quotas for Yorkshiremen, Geordies or Cornishmen whenever a vacancy comes up on their boards.
Gotta love the weasel circumlocution “will spark fears”. The Mail doesn’t seem to have found anyone whose fears have actually been sparked – indeed, the article seems designed to spark fears. They have, however, got a quote from Theresa May (the Tory frontbencher, not the Page Three girl) making some anodyne remark about appointing people on merit, and another from rentaquote Tory MP Philip Davies, who loves these kind of stories, branding it “equal opportunities gone berserk”, which at least is a slight change from the usual “political correctness gone mad” that the Mail favours.
So what is the substance behind this? Well, it all seems to stem from comments made in an obscure parliamentary debate by Lady Harman’s sidekick Michael Foster. Yorkshire MP Meg Munn asked Foster about regional diversity on bodies – such as the Arts Council – that have a supposedly national remit but are virtually monopolised by people from London and its environs. Foster said this was an important point and the government would look at it. And that was it.
It’s not even as if it was a particularly bizarre question. If you know Cornwall, for instance, you’ll know that one major gripe in local politics is the way that quangos or statutory agencies are usually formed around a “Devonwall” remit – Devon and Cornwall Police is an obvious example – or are formed on the level of the “South West” planning region, an enormous area stretching as far as Swindon, and take little account of Cornwall’s needs. In the absence of specifically Cornish bodies, it would make sense to campaign for Cornish input into the broader bodies.
So the idea of regional balance isn’t a bad one, as long as we’re not talking about a crude system of automatic quotas. Not that I would put it entirely beyond New Labour to do such a thing, but it’s clear that hasn’t been proposed. In fact, nothing concrete has been proposed – Foster just said he was looking at the issue. All this is evident from the actual text of the article, but it doesn’t stand in the way of a good PC scare story.
Elsewhere in the Mail, there’s a big long article from Peter Sissons about his retirement from the BBC, and the falling journalistic standards thereof. Sissons, as one would expect, is bracing on the subject and makes a number of excellent points, although he does sound a little like a grumpy old man. This time at least he steers clear of assailing the “autocuties” now in vogue at the Beeb – their existence will be immediately apparent to anyone who watches News 24, but one does run the risk of sounding a little sexist for pointing this out. But on the plus side, Sissons does manage to come out as a supporter of the George W Bush line on climate change.
Still, for sheer offensiveness nothing today beats the Sunday Express‘s huge front-page splash of “Police Must Recruit Gypsies”, which builds its case on, well, a document from the Association of Police Authorities that discussed making police forces more representative of their communities. The Express, predictably, is outraged, and manages to insinuate that the recruitment of Romanichals or travellers into the police would endanger the public. Even the Police Federation wouldn’t provide a quote backing that up, only making the argument that recruitment standards shouldn’t be lowered to meet diversity targets.
On the other hand, the Express does manage to work in quotes from the Campaign Against Political Correctness (a husband-and-wife outfit specialising in providing quotes on these sort of stories), rentaquote Tory MP Philip Davies (this busy man acts as patron of the Campaign Against Political Correctness) and that old standby of the lazy journalist, the Taxpayers’ Alliance. Three for the price of one!