In my last Spectator column, I mounted a polemical defence of Michael Gove’s GCSEs reforms and, in the course of advancing my argument, I made a claim that I’ve subsequently been hounded about. Indeed, a website called fullfact.org mounted an investigation into this claim and concluded that I was guilty of ‘gross exaggeration’. Needless to say, my political opponents have seized upon this and accused me of making stuff up out of whole cloth. In their eyes, I’m now a right-wing version of Johann Hari. So I thought I’d take this opportunity to discuss the charge.
The claim in question was made in the context of ridiculing Andy Burnham, who was Labour’s shadow education secretary from 2010-11, for implying working-class children were incapable of getting a grade C in GCSE French. ‘Better to let them drop the foreign language requirement and do a BTEC in how to claim the dole instead,’ I wrote. ‘(I’m not making that last qualification up, by the way.) That’s not “elitist”. Oh no. That’s “inclusive”.’
Now, I’ll admit, including the phrase ‘I’m not making that last qualification up’ was a gold-embossed invitation to anyone remotely sceptical about my argument to look into whether you could, in fact, do a BTEC in claiming benefits. And, sure enough, fullfact.org did precisely that.
To be fair, the fact-checkers weren’t just looking at my Spectator column. They pointed out that the Prime Minister made a similar claim in a speech earlier this year and, before that, it appeared at least three times in the Daily Mail.
After exhaustive research, the fact-checkers discovered that a curriculum development organisation called ASDAN has devised a BTEC called the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness, and one component of that course does involve finding out ‘what benefits you’re entitled to if you’re unemployed’. So far, so good. However, they go on to say that this is only one task among many and it isn’t mandatory. Pupils hoping to earn this certificate can choose to do another question instead — such as learn to play a board game or visit a theme park and ‘report back’. On that basis, fullfact.org decided that my repetition of this canard was ‘an example of Chinese Whispers that needs to be put to bed’.
But is it? In a game of Chinese Whispers, a word or phrase undergoes a complete transformation, whereas you can, in fact, do a BTEC in how to claim the dole, among other things. It was my omission of those last three words — ‘among other things’ — that, in the eyes of the fact-checkers, rendered my statement misleading. Nevertheless, to call it a ‘gross exaggeration’ seems a bit over the top. It was more of a straightforward exaggeration, which is a stock-in-trade of Fleet Street columnists. When I’m in full flow in the course of making a polemical point I think I’m entitled to engage in a bit of hyperbole.
I accept that not everyone will see it this way. After fullfact.org published its verdict, I got into a barney on Twitter with a politico who demanded I apologise to ASDAN. (‘Is that the lion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe?’ I asked.) Journalists and those who monitor them frequently disagree about what is and isn’t acceptable, partly because the tramlines we’re supposed to stay within are getting narrower. That’s particularly true post-Leveson. If you’re a writer with a political axe to grind — whether on the right or the left — you’re going to be held to a high ethical standard by your opponents, if only so they have an excuse to beat you about the head when you fail to live up to it.
I’m usually pretty thick-skinned about politically motivated attacks on my integrity, but I was irked by the high moral tone of the lefties who took me to task over this. Jonathan Portes, a blogger for the New Statesman, for instance. ‘Yes, @toadmeister is very keen on “facts” in education,’ he tweeted last week. ‘So keen he makes them up, just for readers of the Spectator.’ There’s a difference between exaggeration — even ‘gross exaggeration’ — and making stuff up, but that distinction is lost on Portes. He followed up with another tweet in which he said, among other things: ‘Debate should be based on facts/evidence, not fantasy.’
Well, even though I’m not guilty of ‘fantasy’, I’m happy to put the record straight. Now you know all the facts, dear readers, and I hope you’ll forgive me for my lapse into hyperbole.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.