ISMISM New concepts for the Nineties: No. 27: Standardism

Standardism: n 1. The belief that everything should always stay exactly the same, standard; a doctrine that can be applied equally to A-levels or newspaper articles. 2. The notion that all newspapers should be composed of standard articles, which can all be interchanged with each other without anyone noticing. This is taken for granted in London. If you are in New Zealand, however, it can come as quite a shock to discover that a well-run newspaper treats its opinion columnists as if they were completely and utterly indistinguishable.

The shock broke on Bryan Gould, the former deputy leader of the Labour Party, with the force of a thunderbolt last week. He is now considering whether to sue the Evening Standard for libel after it published a piece by a Tory minister's son with his by-line. One might have thought that Mr Gould would be proud to be treated as if he were a real journalist. But no. He seems to believe that he has some right to his opinions, irrespective of whether there is any demand for them. No wonder he failed as a politician and ended up as a teacher.

The story of Mr Gould's piece illustrates the lengths to which standardism can go. An executive at the Standard was able to ring him up and praise his piece in terms so well standardised that neither he nor Mr Gould realised they were discussing entirely different articles.

Standardism has long been common at the news end of the business. A well- written news story is packed full of devices to diminish its novelty. No phrase is allowed that has not been worn smooth and dull as a linoleum floor. Each new fact must be cushioned by paragraphs of recapitulation and only two new facts are allowed in every story. The consequence is that all the show-offs in the business write opinion pieces instead.

The real tragedy of the Gould case is that these facts have now been revealed to the outside world and even the opinion racket is now blown. People will think that standards are falling.

Fortunately, standardism enables us to have wholly standardised views on standards themselves. A-levels offer a case of standardised standardism.

The standardist procedure is to suppose that, since they have changed, this must be for the worse. Hence the plethora of articles by such as Sir Rhodes Boyson suggesting that there should be at most five A-level passes in any given year. Any decent newspaper executive could counter these by finding a teacher to argue that A-levels should be handed out with child benefit. But that takes us on to restandardisation, which is a far trickier issue altogether.