David Banks: The clocks go back this weekend - but the Government is turning back the clock to Dickens' day

Journal columnist David Banks on the Government's Victorian values - and two journalistic heroes who have fought the good fight

Journal columnist David Banks
Journal columnist David Banks

The clocks go back this weekend. Personally, I thought the government had been turning the clock back to Dickens’ days ever since they took office.

I’m not talking about giving everyone an extra hour in bed this Sunday morning: I’m talking about political attitudes that would be somehow more fitting a century or more ago.

Education? Spare the child and give the teacher a good caning seemed to be Education Secretary Michael Gove’s initial lesson to the nation before his demotion to Chief Whip; dragooning pupils into strict curriculums and constant examinations and driving parents back towards a selective system that favours the better-off belongs more to the era of the Beadle in Oliver Twist than a modern Education Secretary.

Justice? We can’t deport our miscreants to Australia any more so lock ’em up and throw away the key seems to be Justice Secretary Chris Grayling’s solution to the problem of internet ‘trolls’. Trolls: try defining THAT social media term as you frame the Act, Chris: rude, nasty, low-brows breathing Special Brew fumes with every right since Magna Carta to be rude, nasty and low-brow (it’s called freedom of speech).

Prisons? Perhaps Home Secretary Theresa May could remind Mr Justice Grayling that there are currently 85,541 people in prisons designed to hold a maximum 76,569 men and women, with no access to books and little hope of physical exercise, perfect conditions from which to graduate to a life of crime.

Or maybe ‘Maggie’ May is too busy trying to persuade senior policemen in Yorkshire to divert officers from prioritising “burglary and car crime” to protecting hundreds of girls as young as twelve from repeated rape and forced prostitution in England’s modern ‘Sodom and Gomorrah cities’.

The outrageous blind eye that was turned towards those innocents in Sheffield and Rotherham (and God knows where else?) really DOES turn the clock back 130 years to a different, horrible age when a locally-bred journalist hero of mine, William Thomas Stead, turned tabloid-style sensationalism into a power for the greatest good.

The great man, born in Embleton, Northumberland, was at 22 Britain’s youngest editor (of our rival Northern Echo) until he quit to edit Fleet Street’s Pall Mall Gazette where he campaigned against Victorian acceptance of child prostitution and in favour of raising the age of consent from 13 to 16.

His methods were spectacular: to prove the truth of his allegations that pre-teen prostitution was rife Stead arranged the purchase of Eliza Armstrong, the 13-year-old daughter of a chimney sweep. The issue was a sell-out sensation: copies sold for twenty times the cover price, the Gazette ran out of newsprint and had to beg supplies from a rival.

Society was horrified, the Establishment scandalised. But then, as now, it was the messenger who took the bullet for embarrassing police and government. Stead was jailed for three months for his technical ‘abduction’ of the child but thereafter he was a happy man. A scandal exposed, the law of the land was changed and young people eventually got the full protection of the law.

Horrifying that in this modern age it took another talented and courageous journalist, Andrew Norfolk of The Times, to painstakingly track down evidence that led to the conviction of evil men in Rotherham who preyed on the town’s children using drugs, drink and threats. Sheffield followed, investigations in other areas continue.

AH, but this is Africa. . . the words of a senior Ghanaian politician in answer to a BBC World Service interviewer’s suggestion that any restriction on freedom of speech in the UK would provoke a grave reaction from the public.

I had cause to recall that smug, patronising comment when a policeman flagged my son down on our last night together. He climbed into the back seat and insisted that Tim drive him to a police station (shortage of police cars, you see).

“He just wanted a little bribe,” Tim explained later. I was furious: my daughter-in-law had been similarly shaken down the previous week.

“Calm down, dad,” said Tim. “This is Africa. . .”



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