Richard Ingrams' Week: A feeble attempt to defend the indefensible

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The Independent Online

I don't think I have witnessed such a demolition of an official spokesman that occurred when the Education Minister, Andy Burnham, was interviewed earlier this week on the Today programme by John Humphrys.

Forced to defend the latest initiative providing £15 per pupil to introduce school children to culture, Mr Burnham was reduced to a stuttering wreck by a barrage of questions from his bulldozer of an interrogator. No wonder his superior Mr Ed Balls was not available to go on the air that day.

At the core of the argument was Humphrys's perfectly sensible counter-argument that introducing children to the arts was surely something schools should be expected to do as a matter of routine. So why was there a need to provide extra money and bring in outside experts? Burnham never got near to providing an answer.

Not mentioned in the ding-dong were two quite important aspects of this great culture debate. One is that what we older folk would think of as culture is now regarded by many people as elitist. Almost anyone involved, including many teachers, will today pay lip service to the idea, for example, that classical music and pop music are just different sides to the same coin; that the Beatles are as good for you as Beethoven. Anyone suggesting otherwise must be some kind of snob.

The other is the comparatively new emphasis on different cultures which result in children being made to study books not because they are of enduring merit but because the writers are forced to be representative of ethnic minorities. So the same kind of orthodoxy prevails as in the music world, ie that Benjamin Zephaniah is just as worthy for study as Shelley or Keats.

Unfortunately there are few people, least of all Andy Burnham or Ed Balls, who would have the courage to challenge such an assertion.

Who are these distinguished men?

One should always be on one's guard when anyone is described as "distinguished". But that is not the only accolade given by the press to the Royal United Services Institute which issued a report this week accusing us, as a nation, of having gone soft in the face of the terrorist threat. According to the Daily Mail, the RUSI is the world's "oldest and most distinguished defence think tank". Not only distinguished but also respected, its panel of experts "eminent". So we all have to sit up and listen when it tells us "we are indeed a soft touch from within and without".

I confess that until yesterday I had never heard of this world-renowned organisation, the RUSI. Nor had I heard of Professor Gwyn Prins of the London School of Economics, the presumably eminent, distinguished and respected figure who is said to have written this report along with former Tory MP Lord Salisbury. Yet behind these two figures we are told there is a group of equally respected and distinguished retired generals and admirals who have contributed to this analysis.

You could deduce as much from some of the language of the RUSI's report which deplores a "lack of leadership... failure to lay down the line – do they mean law? – to immigrant communities... flabby government thinking".

It has a little too much of the flavour of old men in club armchairs lamenting a once-great nation. There are even echoes of Harold Wilson's era, when senior military men seriously considered the possibility of a military coup.

* Mr Lotfi Raissi confidently expects to be paid a huge sum in compensation and, in addition, to receive an apology from the Home Office. This after being imprisoned for four and a half months at Belmarsh Prison, accused of helping to mastermind the 9/11 attacks in America in 2001. Raissi, an Algerian airline pilot, is now assured by the authorities that he had nothing whatever to do with the attacks which resulted in the deaths of about 3,000 civilians.

Mr Raissi, plainly a man prepared to think the best of people, expressed his delight on finally being released. "I have always said that I believed in British justice," he told the press, "and I finally got it today."

Perhaps he spoke a little too soon. The Ministry of Justice has already announced that it is considering an appeal against the verdict – though to date there has yet to be the customary quote from the police involved to the effect that "we are not looking for anyone else in connection with the 9/11 attacks". As for reports in the press that Mr Raissi is expecting to receive millions of pounds' compensation, here again it could be that his picture of British justice verges on the rosy-tinted.

We have had, after all, quite a lot of experience in recent years of men being wrongfully imprisoned for terrorist offences; some of them served as long as 14 years in prison and were lucky if after fighting through the courts they received as much as £50,000. And even then they were often expected to reimburse the authorities for the cost of their board and lodging during the time of imprisonment – something that has now become standard practice. And as for apologies, the Birmingham Six are still waiting for theirs after 20-odd years.

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