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Take this news with tweezers

20 June 2014

Idiom: the "Francis Pope" interview, as reported in The Independent

Idiom: the "Francis Pope" interview, as reported in The Independent

CONFUSING news out of Rome. According to The Times, "Church rift is a scandal, admits Pope". According to Google Translate, applied to a Spanish newspaper report, "Francis Pope" said: "The secession of a nation must be taken with tweezers," and: "I'm no lit, not under the arm suit any personal project."

It may seem that the Google story is the more patent gibberish, but the first Spanish quote, when actually translated into English by a human being, produced a Mail headline that was possibly more interesting: "Fresh blow for Salmond: Now the Pope backs Scottish NO vote after Hillary Clinton, Obama and JK Rowling".

It was a completely anodyne remark, offensive only to amoebas, who have never welcomed compulsory celibacy, but was probably intended to have a political meaning, and to discourage separatism in Catalonia and Scotland. (The second Spanish quote was a little less dramatic than that: all the Pope had actually said was that "all division worries me".) The claim that division is a "scandal", on the other hand, is purest boilerplate, even if it looks much stronger. And this goes to show that computers are still by some way less intelligent than humans, since it takes a human to distort what's happening so much by simply quoting accurately.

It was, I think, J. K. Galbraith who wrote that it was astonishing what a man could fail to understand when his job depended on not understanding it. Although this was aimed at lobbyists and politicians, it applies with special force to people whose job it is to generate news stories.

THEN there was The Observer's splash, claiming that a majority of voters opposed state funding for faith schools. This seemedto me to show how perfectly the Churchof England is still integrated into Englishlife, since it is obvious that what the voters polled are concerned about is almost entirely Muslim schools. Since the the whole of the "Trojan Horse" plot took place in state schools, the question of faith schools is entirely irrelevant. What the poll shows, I think, is that people do not want conservative Muslim values transmitted to the next generation - unless they are conservative Muslims, and the generation in question is composed of their children.

Certainly, no government is going to dare to abolish schools that, middle-class parents believe, will enable them to give their children a start in life. As the Observer story says: "Labour supports the continuation of state-funded faith schools, and shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said he saw them as 'an important part of the educational landscape'. But he said the recent controversy in Birmingham, where six non-faith schools have been put into special measures, and a further five criticised, following allegations of a plot by hardline Muslims to infiltrate them, had raised important questions about the relationship between education and religion in a multicultural society."

THE ever-thoughtful Ian Jack, writing in The Guardian, revisited the case of Ray Honeyford, a Bradford headmaster who was forced out of his job in the early 1980s after objecting to the Islamification of the middle school he then ran - or thought he ran. Honeyford was a victim both of pressure from the parents he rather needlessly offended and from the people he took to be his supporters in London. I was peripherally involved in the case, writing about it for a think tank, and so I know the people involved.

Jack wrote: "His views on schools - thatthey exist to teach rather than entertainor placate - have become orthodox long since. That immigrants 'have responsibilities as well rights' is a cliché now embedded in every political party, which also demand that immigrants speak and read English before they take citizenship tests. And on the available evidence, the case of the Birmingham schools seems to show what happens when a version of multicultural freedom prevails which Honeyford so fiercely opposed. By these lights, it's hard not to think he was right or, if you prefer it more neutrally, well ahead of his time.

"The pity of it is that he fell in love with the idea of himself as a writer, and as a thinker on more general matters."

The pity of it is that he was encouraged in this delusion by the people in London on whom he relied for support.

None of the Conservative intellectuals for whom Honeyford wrote rated him as more than an earnest provincial, who would be useful to the cause as a martyr. Indeed, I remember one special adviser from the Ministry of Education expressing the hope that Honeyford would collapse with a nervous breakdown, which could then be blamed on the "Loony Left".

It was an experience that cured me of politics for life. But the questions that he raised remain.

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