A culture war chapter on verse: The Times attacks the National Trust by pillorying children's poetry

... and add to an existing media attacks on a professor just doing her job

Think of the children. Great, now slag poetry by those children off in a national newspaper in order to own the libs. Congratulations! You now have a sense of what it’s like to be Dominic Kennedy, The Times’ Investigations Editor, whose bio on the newspaper’s website says he “investigates lots of rogues”.

And what says ‘rogue’ more than an academic introducing children to the National Trust’s collections of artefacts and those very children writing poetry about their response to that history. Rogues! Rogues who must be brought to justice in the pages of the ‘paper of record’ (subs to check)!

In yesterday’s Times, Kennedy applied his forensic investigative abilities to the tale of some children writing verse.

Under a headline that makes effective use of scare quotes — National Trust ‘asks children to denigrate the British Empire’ — he writes:

The National Trust has been encouraging children to write poems lamenting Britain’s history.

Primary school pupils have been shown around country houses and invited to create verses about the former owners’ connections to the British Empire. A rebel group of National Trust members has accused the charity of getting children to denigrate their own history and is demanding it returns to its core purpose as a custodian of heritage.

To borrow an over-used internet phrase — there’s a lot to unpack there:

  1. While the first line is phrased as a fact, it is, in fact, an opinion. An opinion held by some people we’ll meet in point two of this list…

  2. Please welcome the “rebel group of National Trust members”, a phrase that suggests they stalk down the corridors of various country houses, blasters in hand, shooting down the woke stormtroopers out to… encourage children to critically engage with history.

  3. The phrase “getting children to denigrate their own history” has very strong “It’s the drama, Mick, I just love it!’ energy given that we’re talking about kids writing poetry rather than say spray painting slogans from the 1968 student revolt on every painting and statue they encounter.

In just the first two paragraphs, it’s clear that Kennedy is writing this story with an agenda. It is propaganda, not a report on a debate with two sides.

The article continues:

The poems were written as part of the trust’s Colonial Countryside project, which since 2018 has been highlighting ties between country homes and imperialism.

At Charlecote Park near Stratford-upon-Avon, a bejewelled dress sword and scabbard looted during the relief of Lucknow from the Indian mutiny of 1857 inspired children’s poetry. One wrote: “Stolen by the English; a freedom sword, a stolen freedom sword.”

A page containing a child’s unflattering poem about Lord Curzon, viceroy of India from 1899 to 1905, has been removed from the website of the National Trust, which owns his former home, Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire.

The child stated: “He thinks he’s strong, trying to take over India.” This child’s rhyme replaced a contemporary verse insulting Lord Curzon, which the National Trust previously published to show how unpopular he was in his lifetime. It began: “My name is George Nathaniel Curzon, I am a most superior person.”

Again, this lacks important context. In this case, the fact that Curzon was unpopular in his own lifetime. David Lindsay, the 27th Earl of Crawford, one of Curzon’s cabinet colleagues, wrote of him in his diary:

I never knew a man less loved by his colleagues and more hated by his subordinates, never a man so bereft of conscience, of charity or of gratitude. On the other hand, the combination of power, of industry, and of ambition with a mean personality is almost without parallel. I never attended a funeral ceremony at which the congregation was so dry-eyed!

And Churchill, who newspaper columnists and cops assure us was never wrong about anything, wrote of Curzon in his book Great Contemporaries:

Everything was in his equipment. You could unpack his knapsack and take an inventory item by item. Nothing on the list was missing, yet somehow or other the total was incomplete.

But somehow a few lines by a 21st-century school child, reflecting on the theft of Indian artefacts, are more objectionable than the withering assessments of his contemporaries.

Now we come to the conclusion of the piece; the part that put this relatively run-of-the-mill for The Times culture war story on my radar:

The project involving 100 children has been led by Corinne Fowler, professor of postcolonial literature at the University of Leicester. She said last night: “Colonial Countryside pupils produced work which expresses the fullest possible range of approaches, perspectives and emotions, from critical to curious to expressions of wonder.”

Jack Hayward, of the pressure group Restore Trust, said: “We don’t have a problem with an objective assessment of history. We have a problem with people being subjective about history.”

Professor Fowler tweeted yesterday:

While shortening quotes for space is common practice in journalism, removing the first 14 words of Professor Fowler’s quote, in this case, allows The Times to discard criticism of its entire premise for publishing the story.

The catalyst for The Times’ story appears to be — as Professor Fowler notes — a Telegraph column by Charles Moore from Friday 2 April 2021, in which he wrote:

Professor Corinne Fowler, of the University of Leicester… is in charge of the Colonial Countryside Project – “child-led” but “historian steered” – which is actively supported by the Trust. The “historians” (though, by the way, Prof Fowler is not a historian) steer primary school children to attack the former owners of National Trust properties. 

On the Trust’s website about Penrhyn Castle, a young boy writes that its objects, such as a stuffed bird, are “dark, unpleasant and brutal”: “they come from cruelty”. At Kedleston Hall, former home of Lord Curzon, one of the greatest benefactors of the National Trust and of built heritage conservation in India when viceroy, a young girl contributes a poem about him: “He thinks he’s strong/trying to take over India./Although this was successful,/he still didn’t have any believers./Trying to look posh by ill-treating animals/ for some reason, this makes him popular/ with the British.” 

Needless to say, there are no primary school poems at Chartwell praising Winston Churchill for beating Hitler. No blame, of course, should attach to the child poets: they are merely doing what their teachers expect of them. 

Prof Fowler also protests, like Hilary McGrady, against the idea that her project and report are politicised. Politicians should not “weaponise history”, she says. She happily does it herself, however… She is entitled to her point of view, and anyone who denies the exploitative power of any empire has little understanding of human nature, but Prof Fowler appears to be on a political mission, not a scrupulous academic one.

Looking at her Twitter account in the past week alone, I see she endorses an attack on several British monarchs for their involvement in slavery and retweets numerous assaults on the new Government report by Dr Tony Sewell on race and ethnic disparities. One of the tweets she supported accuses the Government of “actively fuelling” racism. 

Moore’s words echo those of Jack Hayward from the astroturfing group Restore Trust (“We have a problem with people being subjective about history.”) and are just as dim-witted.

Charles Moore only considers an academic’s mission to be “scrupulous” if their views align with his. It is not objectivity he or Hayward seek but acquiescence to their world view. As I’ve written before, the Right isn’t fighting for the right to free speech but the freedom for Right speech.

And Moore’s ‘intervention’ is hardly the first his paper has made or the only attack in the national press — The Daily Mail has also developed a supremely unhealthy obsession with the National Trust’s policies and education schemes.

The astroturfers of ‘Restore Trust’ were also given a luxurious write up by The Evening Standard this weekend in a piece headlined National Trust members launch campaign against ‘woke agenda’ — again accepting whole cloth that any such “woke agenda” exists at the National Trust.

The article begins, just as Kennedy’s did for The Times, by presenting the group’s view as fact rather than opinion:

National Trust members have launched a campaign against the charity’s “one-sided” view of history following the publication of a controversial slavery report.

Restore Trust, which has 300 members, was set up following a backlash over the report detailing the links between a number of the National Trust's properties and slavery.

Let’s dust a little context on this. Restore Trust claims to have 300 members. Impressive! The National Trust as a whole has 5.9 million members. Restore Trust has a ways to go before it represents anything more than a rounding error, but its views chime with those of editors at newspapers out to stoke further culture war clashes so it’s getting disproportionate attention.

Like The Times report, The Evening Standard’s coverage puts the right-wing perspective at the top of the story, giving it more prominence and focus than other perspectives:

In an interim report published last year, the Trust detailed links between 93 of its properties and historic slavery and colonialism.

The move prompted a fierce backlash in some quarters, including from some MPs and peers, with the trust facing accusations of “wokeism” and jumping on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon.

The phrase “jumping on the Black Lives Matter bandwagon” screams balance and impartiality, doesn’t it?

The fact that the Charity Commission investigated complaints about the National Trust’s report into its properties’ links to slavery and ruled there were no grounds for action is tossed away at the bottom of The Evening Standard piece, lots beneath an avalanche of ads in the online version.

Restore Trust’s website was registered for a single year on February 14 2021 and doesn’t feature anyone’s name besides that of the web designer who produced the site — Howard Sherwood. Even the group’s spokesperson — Jack Hayward, who was quoted by The Times — isn’t mentioned.

This is a common situation:

A ‘pressure group’ is spun up to push a certain line and picked up by newspapers who already support that position. The sources of financing and other support for the group aren’t delved into by the newspaper because it’s getting the outraged quotes it wants. Meanwhile, academics and others who are named are placed under pressure and receive abuse while their accusers are protected and lauded by newspaper columnists.

Among those columnists, figures like Charles Moore and Nick Timothy — both of The Daily Telegraphrevel in claiming that it is the Left who foster and foment the culture war when that’s clearly false.

It is the Right — in government, think tanks, and the press — that benefits from this ongoing distortion of public discourse. And it is the Right that most often deploys these opaquely-funded, shadily-backed, and hastily-constituted ‘pressure groups’ pushing attack lines.

The culture war is an asymmetrical war in which the Right has the establishment forces of government and the national media, the mercenary support of the think tanks, and guerilla outfits such as Restore Trust and Defund The BBC.

When groups like Restore Trust attack academics such as Professor Fowler, journalists should be questioning their motivations. Because unlike Fowler, who does her work in the full glare of public and media scrutiny, Restore Trust are sniping from the shadows, behind a deliberately obscurant website, with the protection of reporters and columnists peddling their proprietor’s line.

Boil down Dominic Kennedy’s Times story to its essence and what are you left with? A professional journalist taking the word of a pressure group as gospel to denigrate a poem by a 10-year-old girl. If that’s a good day’s work for someone who has spent nearly 30 years at The Times, I’d suggest a career change.

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Previously:

Night of the Living Lefties: How Nick Timothy writes chilling culture war fairy tales for Telegraph readers