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BSF: Repeating a lie does not make it true

Paul Finch’s letter from London: The Sunday Times should report the facts on Building Schools for the Future

You expect a reasonable quality of reporting from the Sunday Times. What the Americans call B&D, or breadth and depth, rather than the shock horror stuff dished up by other parts of the Murdoch empire. As a former external examiner for a journalism degree course, I also look for basic levels of balance in stories I happen to be reading.

It was disappointing, therefore, to see such poor standards in last Sunday’s issue, in a story by Jack Grimston and Rosie Kinchen headed ‘Architects net £98 million from schools’. The reporters went straight into tabloid mode with the assertion that these fees had been paid by ‘just’
21 councils under Labour’s ‘multi-billion-pound school-building programme’.

My first thought was that if it was a multi-billion-pound programme, does £98 million sound that much? Nothing in the story enlightened me or anyone else one way or the other.

My second thought was that neither reporter had understood Building Schools for the Future, because if they had done so, they would have known that it was not generally councils that paid the architects, but successful bidding consortia, invariably led by contractors. The role and remuneration of contractors (and bankers, lawyers and project managers) was left unmentioned throughout. Pathetic, particularly in a page lead story that appeared complete with a large photomontage of pointless school shots and a very pointed inclusion of Lord and Lady Foster, because Foster + Partners had designed the Bexley Business Academy, charging ‘£6.15 million’.

Needless to say, the fact that Bexley was not part of the BSF programme failed to get a mention. Just as curiously, a boxed-out list on ‘Costliest buildings’ named three schools which were not referred to in the story itself. No architect was identified in respect of the Jewish Community Secondary, north London (£50 million); the Darwen Academy, Lancashire (£49 million); or the Thomas Deacon Academy in Peterborough. No fees were mentioned either. Why not?

The story claimed that the highest single BSF fee went not to Foster + Partners, which was not explained, but to BDP, which received £2.6 million for work on a £36 million school in Teddington. The report gleefully pointed out that this was in the constituency of business secretary Vince Cable. Since Mr Cable had nothing to do with BSF, it was far from clear why this reference achieved such prominence in the story, appearing in the second paragraph.

It didn’t take long for the two journalists to drag in someone else who had nothing to do with BSF: education secretary Michael Gove. In a rambling fifth paragraph, we were reminded that Mr Gove had accused architects of ‘creaming off’ money from BSF, a downright lie as far as I am concerned. There was no attempt at analysis or verification of this proposition. Instead, we were treated to a quote from Charlotte Leslie, a Tory MP on the education select committee, who told the Sunday Times: ‘Hundreds of millions of pounds were frittered away paying architects’. With that level of exactitude, it is no surprise she is in politics.

Needless to say Ms Leslie didn’t say who had paid all this money, and the reporters either didn’t ask, didn’t understand the answer, or perhaps concluded that it was too complicated to include in their story.

In an unconvincing attempt to inject a modicum of balance, the writers spoke to two architects who pointed out that their fees included sums paid to subconsultants. The damp squib final paragraph of the report confirmed this – sort of. Councils ‘criticised for their spending on fees’ said the ‘high figures’ were necessary ‘because architects subcontracted much of the specialist design and engineering consultancy work’. A point not contradicted.

If I want to read this sort of stuff, it is much better done by the Mail on Sunday, which still seems to like a bit of breadth and depth. These two writers may have been very badly edited; they may have been mentally idle. Perhaps they should try writing separately.

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