The Today programme continues to hold those in power accountable

The Today programme continues to hold those in power accountable

Radio 4’s Today deserves a pat on the back for its exceptional journalism on the RAAC scandal and ‘Martha’s rule’.

Those who were listening to Radio 4’s Today programme on Thursday 7 July, 2022 will never forget what they heard that morning.

It seemed that live on the Today programme, the government of Boris Johnson was disintegrating in real time as minister after minister announced their resignations.

Two days earlier, the former Foreign Office permanent secretary Lord Simon McDonald had written to the Parliamentary Standards Committee insisting that Boris Johnson’s claims about what he knew about the “Chris Pincher affair” were simply untrue. But it was Lord McDonald’s interview on the Today programme that lit the fuse that ended the Johnson Premiership.

In response to Government claims that Johnson had not been aware of the “specific” allegation against Chris Pincher before appointing him as a Whip, Lord McDonald told Today: “What I have seen and read over the past few days, I knew to be wrong, and things get to a point where you have to do the right thing.”

This Monday, Today had another cracker of a programme featuring once again, unusually, a retired permanent secretary coming forward to tell what he had observed and say what he knew.

Crumbling concrete

Remarkably, a single edition of Radio 4’s flagship news programme moved the political dial not just on one but two significant stories.

The crumbling concrete scandal hit the front pages last Friday, with the announcement just before the beginning of the new autumn term that more than 100 schools would have to close either entirely or in part because of unsafe buildings.

The Government was criticised because of the lateness of the action and the fact they were unable to publish a list of the schools and other public buildings involved, thereby alarming parents. The problem, which has been known about for years, involves the fact that reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete (RAAC), used in buildings from the mid-1950s to the mid-1990s is prone to catastrophic collapse.

Then, suddenly on the Today programme, there was the former permanent secretary of the Department of Education Jonathan Slater telling it how it was. As befits senior civil servants such as Slater and Lord McDonald, the approach is unemotional, still carrying traces of their lifelong professional discretion, as they major on the facts.

Slater said that in the face of the well-known problems about dilapidated school buildings, including RAAC, the Department had argued that 300-400 schools per year should be rebuilt or refurbished.

The government, Slater said, had opted for 100 per year.

Later, the Education Department, amidst renewed safety concerns, put forward the case for upgrading what it thought was a reasonable and practical 200 schools per year. Slater said he had been optimistic that the 200 target would be accepted by the Treasury. Instead, according to the former permanent secretary, despite a warning about “a critical risk to life,” the Chancellor of the Exchequer had cut the number to 50.

Presenter Nick Robinson had to ask Slater who was Chancellor at the time. The answer of course was Rishi Sunak, now Prime Minister.

‘Crisis descended into farce’

Riveting radio and one with continuing political consequences.

It got even worse for the Government when Slater explained his surprise that the safety of schools and the rebuilding programme had not been the top spending priority. The number one financial target had instead been the creation of more free schools in line with conservative ideology.

Cue pandemonium in the media, exacerbated by the inept attempts by Education Secretary Gillian Keegan to defend both herself and her department.

“Does anyone ever say, you know what, you’ve done a fucking good job because everyone else has sat on their arses and done nothing,” she said as ITV cameras were being reset, without apparently realising that sometimes cameras just keep rolling.

Her performance did not rate well even in the Conservative-supporting press with the Daily Mail urging Rishi Sunak “to get a grip as the school concrete crisis descended into farce.” The Sun dubbed Keegan “bottom of the class.”

The Prime Minister has denied cutting the building programme and argued that the 50 rebuild figure had been the regular annual average.

Critics have pointed out that even if that is true, it didn’t come close to being an adequate response to the scale of the emergency.

As The Times reported Tuesday, Gareth Davies, the head of the spending watchdog the National Audit Office, has accused the Government of “a sticking plaster approach” to essential maintenance.

Money had been wasted on emergency repairs while the “unflashy” job of keeping buildings in usable condition had been neglected.

Pupils and parents, Davies wrote in an article for The Times, were now paying the price for underinvestment in school buildings “despite a string of warnings regarding RAAC.”

Another, even more compelling item on the same programme

The intervention of Jonathan Slater is unlikely to have the same instant impact as the measured words of Lord McDonald had last year — after all, Boris Johnson has always been in a class of his own.

But The Times warned yesterday that although Rishi Sunak was not solely responsible for Britain’s crumbling schools, “the Prime Minister will pay a high price if he fails to tackle this urgent and dangerous problem.”

The Slater interview was a dramatic piece for Today, but they had another, even more compelling item on the same programme.

It was a heart-breaking interview with Merope Mills, whose 13-year-old daughter Martha died of the killer infection sepsis in King’s College Hospital London. Merope had repeatedly warned doctors and nurses that the condition of her daughter was deteriorating, but she was only transferred to intensive care when it was too late.

An inquest found that that Martha would have survived had her care been better.

Her mother wants to see the introduction of “Martha’s rule,” that would give parents, carers and patients the right to call for an urgent second clinical opinion from other experts at the same hospital if they have concerns about their current care.

A bittersweet outcome is now likely. Health Secretary Steve Barclay says he is considering introducing a “Martha’s rule” and Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting says Labour would introduce such a rule if the current Government did not.

Not a bad day’s journalism for a three-hour radio programme.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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