Civil servants, can't live with them, can't live without them

Submitted by Matthew on 21 September, 2011 - 10:49

The conventional wisdom in journalism is that short snappy headlines work best. That bias is particularly popular in the tabloid press where the job of combining reporting and strident comment in memorable headlines has become an special art form. Think “Gotcha” or “Up Yours Delors”. Sometimes, however, this craft collapses under the weight and volume of prejudice it is expected to carry. So it was with the Sunday Express on 18 September.

Sunday is the day for salacious stories of promiscuous footballers and soap stars, drunken royals or, occasionally, corrupt politicians. Express readers may, therefore, have found the following headline difficult to digest:

“Paid to party on your tax; How civil servants were given time off work for drunken sports day hours after voting for a mass strike.”

The story was exemplar of all that the Express-world thinks is wrong with modern Britain and that must have pushed aside any doubts about the clumsy inelegance of the article’s heading. The Express usually likes to shout at browsing shoppers so that even those who fail to pay money for their poison are at least aware of the current public enemy number one and their latest crime. Here that could not be done in less than 25 words.

First you have civil servants — that’s bureaucrats, pen-pushers, general n’er-do-wells. Express readers clearly needed reminding that this pathetic breed is paid for by taxpayers. But what have the pen-pushers been up to?

It turns out that they were allocated a day away from their normal duties to attend an event at Loughborough University at which they took part in various sports and activities.

It was one of those team-building exercises as beloved of modern management as they are dreaded by most workers.

It isn’t made clear by the Express but almost certainly the workers had no choice but to attend. But the Express says “civil servants were given extra paid holiday to attend an alcohol-fuelled sports event just hours after their unions voted for a mass strike”. A working day when you are told to be away from your normal duties becomes “an extra paid holiday”. And as it is a residential event at a college with a bar it is “alcohol-fuelled”.

Most bizarrely of all according to the Express it is a particular insult to the rest of us (taxpayers) as it took place after a completely unconnected event — the decision by most public sector unions to take strike action to defend their pensions.

A close reading of the story suggests that the paper had invested so much time and effort into “uncovering” it that they just had to run it very prominently and make of it as much outrage as they could. They had at least six blown-up pictures of civil servants in various states of fancy dress (Smurfs, Marilyn Monroes, a nun) or sporting prowess (a shot-putter, a runner). They clearly had a reporter as well as a photographer at the entire event as the timetable of events and conversations were relayed to us in tedious detail. And no activity, however unexceptional and normal, is described without all-important “shock horror” adjectives . The music was “deafening”, dancers were “gyrating” and when they sang it was “uproariously”. All in all it appears to have been a scandalous couple of days which did the country great damage.

Or did it? The Express can’t seem to make its mind up. They wanted to say that these people would have been better back at base doing their normal job. Much was made of the presence of Border Agency staff who “have lost track of 100,000 asylum seekers over the last five years” and Revenue and Customs staff who have a “huge backlog of 18 million unresolved income tax cases”. But in the same article a different conclusion is hinted at. One (predictably) anonymous civil servant is quoted as saying “with this many civil servants off work you would imagine the country would grind to a halt, but it hasn’t, so some might say ‘Why do we need them?’ “

So are civil servants a huge waste of money, a vast government-run job creation scheme funded out of the hard-earned wages of the poor old taxpayer? Or are they vital public servants who keep our society running smoothly? Do we need more of them working for longer or would we not notice if they weren’t there? The Express, despite its almost religious certainty on most issues, can’t make its mind up.

They can be certain of only two things; civil servants are not serious workers like, say, bankers, accountants and Alan Sugar, and strikes are a very bad thing. Even if the work done by the strikers is a waste of time.

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