On 3 October, at a fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference, education secretary Michael Gove went out of his way to sing the praises of Rupert Murdoch. Gove admitted that he remained "a great admirer of Rupert Murdoch, he's a force of nature, a phenomenon, he's a great man". For a senior minister to still admit to being one of Murdoch's creatures is quite remarkable, but there was a good reason for Gove standing by his man: Murdoch has a central role in Tory plans for British education.
During their first fourteen months in office, Cabinet ministers met senior News International executives 130 times. Over a quarter of these meetings involved David Cameron himself. While in no way wishing to be fair to Cameron, it has to be admitted that his government was merely continuing a long established tradition of British governments kow-towing to Murdoch. This tradition began to take shape under Harold Wilson in the late 1970s, was consolidated under Thatcher, was deepened and extended under Blair and Brown and was set to become even more extravagant under Cameron. Even the former editor of the Sun, Kelvin MacKenzie, has complained of "Cameron's excessive arse-kissing", and he is one of the world's leading experts in this field. The savage cuts the government has inflicted on the BBC are very much a favour for Murdoch. And, of course, until recently Cameron had permanently at his side the former editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, someone who he was apparently giving "a second chance".
All this is reasonably well known. What is not so well known is that Michael Gove has met Murdoch seven times, and News International executives more than another dozen times, since taking office. Why? What have they discussed and should we be worried?
Gove, of course, used to be a senior member of the editorial team at The Times and was apparently being groomed as its future editor. His wife is still a journalist on the paper. As recently as 2009, The Times paid him £60,000 for occasional articles. He is one of the Conservative Party's intellectuals, although it is worth remembering that traditionally the Tory definition of an intellectual was a chap who was no good at games. He is a hard line neo-conservative, a fervent admirer of Tony Blair, still strongly supportive of the invasion of Iraq and convinced that we are in the middle of a new World War with Islamism. He has actually written a book arguing that Islamism is as great a threat to the West as the Nazis were, an opinion that puts him firmly in the deranged Fox News camp.
Gove is certainly someone Murdoch feels at home with. But what on earth can they have had to discuss in their seven meetings? Has Murdoch, the great champion of "dumbing down", developed a passion for education in his old age? Not even his best friends would accuse him of that. Murdoch's twin obsessions are profits and power. What he was discussing with Gove was how he can make money out of the British educational system.
Murdoch has identified education as the great new commercial opportunity in our neo-liberal world. As he put it with regard to education in the USA: "we see a $500 billion sector in the US alone that is waiting desperately to be transformed". To exploit this golden opportunity, he bought the US company, Wireless Generation, a software, assessment tools and date services company, for $360 million, and appointed Joel Klein, New York's former education chief (with whom Gove has also had meetings), as a senior News Corporation vice-president. Murdoch intends to establish himself as "the king of for profit education", a business opportunity that promises to be every bit as lucrative as satellite television.
Klein, a former US Justice Department attorney, was sitting behind Murdoch during his House of Commons appearance, and has been put in charge of protecting the family from the "hackgate" fall-out. He is a key figure in the Murdoch Empire, a clear indication of the importance Murdoch gives to the profit making opportunities in education. When he was in charge in New York, Klein made a name for himself as a bitter enemy of the teacher's trade unions, championing payment by results, ending job security and cutting teachers' pensions. He is a strong supporter of replacing teachers with Murdoch's software. Rather than this technology being there to assist teachers, it is intended to replace, cheapen and de-skill them in the interests of profit.
This is what Murdoch and Gove were talking about. Murdoch has publicly boasted that half the teachers in British schools can be dispensed with if the new technology is embraced. This would allow Gove to break the teacher's trade unions once and for all, and create the "free market schooling" that he dreams of.
How far advanced was the plan for Murdoch to move in on British education in the way that he has already begun to do in the US? Gove was desperately trying to involve Murdoch in sponsoring an Academy. This would have served as a Trojan horse, opening up state education for exploitation. The school would have served as a "showcase" for the new technology. Gove actually showed Rebekah Brooks, James Harding (editor of The Times), and Will Lewis, another Murdoch man, around a potential site in Newham in east London. The proposed Academy would have specialised in "journalism", presumably with courses on making it up, phone-hacking, bribing the police and concealing evidence, vital skills for journalists in the Murdoch Empire. Brooks, it is worth noting, remains a governor of the Fulwood Academy, sponsored by the Carphone Warehouse boss, Charles Dunstone. She is probably the only school governor to have publicly admitted to having bribed the police and yet remained in place!
Unfortunately, the current phone-hacking scandals have put the plans for a "Murdoch" Academy on hold. Nevertheless, as Gove made clear at the Tory Conference, Murdoch is 'a great man', and there can be no doubt that the Tories still hope to be able to open up British education to the Murdoch Empire.
Part of Gove's agenda for education is the breaking of the teachers' trade unions. 73% of teachers are trade union members, compared with 26% of workers overall. The strength of teacher's unions is a massive obstacle to turning schools into profit-making enterprises for big business. They have to be broken.
Academies and Free Schools are a central part of the Government's anti-union strategy. At the Ashcroft Academy in Wandsworth (sponsored by Lord Ashcroft, the billionaire former treasurer and vice-chairman of the Conservative Party), not only are unions not recognised, but the staff have had a no strike contract imposed on them. And Murdoch, of course, is an expert at union busting. It seems clear that what the Tories have in mind for teachers is a sort of "slow motion Wapping", using the introduction of the new technology to eliminate the unions one school at a time.
One reason why people have not yet really got to grips with the Murdoch plan for British education is that Gove, like a number of other ministers, is running a parallel, secret policy alongside the government's official policy. In the process, he has succeeded in completely alienating his officials at the Department for Education. An anonymous PCS official has complained of "a climate of fear" in the Department, that policy is no longer "evidence-based", and that officials were afraid to challenge this for fear of "being seen as an awkward character who could be got rid of". A DfE internal survey has shown that since Gove took over, his own civil servants' confidence in the way the Department is run has plummeted. The harsh reality is that State education in Britain is in the hands of a neocon ideologue, who intends to privatise it and, in the process, smash the teacher's trade unions.
In the US, people are already waking up to the Murdoch agenda for education. The Nation magazine reported that "scrutiny on Murdoch's school agenda is growing". We need to turn the spot light on that same agenda in Britain.