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By Anne Nicholls
Richard Garner, who sadly died on 28 January aged 69 after a short illness, was the longest serving specialist education journalist with a knowledge and experience that no-one else could match. The dozens of tributes that have poured in over the past few days have all praised his integrity, professionalism, talent and dedication to education. Alastair Campbell, who worked with him on the Daily Mirror, described him as a “lovely man and a brilliant journalist” who “cared not just about stories but about the role of education in the life of the country and of its children and young people.”
From working on provincial newspapers, Richard moved to the TES to become news editor, then spent ten years on the Mirror and 15 on the Independent until 2016. Ian Nash, his colleague on the TES and a close friend, said Richard “broke new ground in many ways”, managing to convince a national newspaper (the Mirror) to run a page on vocational education. Richard was one the few journalists that was open to running stories about further and adult education in the national press that was almost entirely focused on schools and universities.
Richard witnessed major changes in the news media and the way that education stories are covered over more than three decades. These are discussed in depth in a “must read” paper for the Education thinktank HEPI entitled Return on investment? How universities communicate with the outside world. Although focused on higher education, the insights are relevant across the whole education sector. Richard identified some significant trends. One is the decrease in the number of specialist education journalists along with the amount of space devoted to education in the national print media. When he joined the Mirror in 1989, the Independent, Guardian, Times, Telegraph and Daily Mail each had two education correspondents. The Independent, which he joined in 2001, had five in the education team with a 24-page supplement. Now the online Independent has just one dedicated education writer, the Mirror’s education reporter covers transport and labour relations as well, and the Sun and Express have no dedicated education specialist. But there has been expansion in other areas with more blogs and online news outlets which have meant press officers and PROs adopting different approaches.
Richard was unusual amongst national journalists as not having been to university – something that helped to shape his approach. He said that “if more leading journalists came from a wider range of backgrounds the spoils of media success would be more fairly shared between institutions”. He devotes several paragraphs to the issue of social mobility and the media focus on Russell Group universities (particularly Oxford and Cambridge) to the detriment of the wider higher education sector.
Richard had embarked on a new career as a crime writer and had already published three novels, with a fourth in the pipeline. It is so sad that his life has ended at a time when new directions in his life (including a recent marriage) were opening up. He will be greatly missed by so many. I recall with fondness the many times we met over the past 30 years. He was someone who was always prepared to listen, open to ideas and a genuinely lovely man. I can still hear him answering the phone with that soft, gentle voice saying: “Hello, Richard Garner.”
Richard’s book The Thirty Years’ War: My Life Reporting on Education, published in 2016, provides a perspective on the changes in education policy over more than three decades with many insights and personal recollections. You can read Richard’s obituaries in the Independent and TES.
Richard was awarded the prestigious Ted Wragg award, sponsored by the CIPR’s Education and Skills Sector Group, in 2008.
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