Monday, 18 June 2012

Never second thoughts

Poor old Argyll and Bute council.

You have to ask why councils - and other parts of the public services - are supposed be PR whizzes; haven't they better things to do? - but they could have done with a PR wizard last week as they brought down a shitstorm onto their own heads.

The cause was simple: they had dared to 'censor' the blog of a nine-year-old child.

Since April, Martha Payne had, with her father's help, been publishing her Never Seconds blog, photographing her school dinner and then rating it for a series of things, from healthiness to enjoyment to how many hairs there were in it.

As a sample, one of the blog entries commented: "I'm a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can't do it on one croquette. Do any of you think you could?"

Now, I first spotted - and tweeted a link to - Martha's blog some weeks ago.

If you take the photographs at face value, then the dinners do indeed look dismal. The pictures show small portions, with little of nutritional value.

On one, for instance, there are three slices of cucumber, a little burger in a bun, a pair of croquettes and an ice lolly.

And this has clearly continued. Jamie Oliver has added his support. And lo and behold, when the media started noticing, they paid Martha for the right to use her pictures (not the Daily Mail, obviously).

Martha didn't keep the money, but gave it to a charity that provides school meals for children in Malawi, and because the blog had gone viral, other people donated to that too. Which is all very nice.

And then cue a headline in the Daily Record saying it was "Time to fire the dinnerladies".

Now, apparently, this was all meant to be bit light-hearted, to accompany a picture spread featuring Martha cooking a meal with top chef Nick Nairn, at an event he'd organised after seeing the blog.

The council, however, says that the dinnerladies themselves were upset by it and, indeed, frightened for their jobs. So it decided that Martha should not be allowed to keep on photographing her school meals any more.

The blog reports this. Social media goes into an overdrive of the highest dudgeon possible.

Amid cries about the nasty council censoring a child, about it staunching youthful creativity, about the appalling school dinners, the council leader lifts the ban.

So, where does that leave us?

It was Descartes who injuncted us to "doubt everything".

It seems to me that a healthy dose of exactly that is what is needed in this case.

Argyll and Bute have had what can only be described as an absolute PR disaster. It's difficult to imagine that they could have managed things worse.

But let's consider a number of things.

According to various people, Martha's school does not just serve the foods that she has pictured. There are choices available to the children - and there is always salad and fruit.

This is apparently a Scotland-wide approach. Indeed, one poster on the BBC online report of the story says that they were a schools meals supervisor and, on the basis of that nationwide policy, this sort of meal would absolutely not have been all that was on offer.

So, either this is also true at Lochgilphead Primary School, where Martha is a pupil, or it's not. If it's not, then what is the true situation? Has the school been ignoring its obligations and serving only what one pupil has pictured?

Or have Martha's pictures only shown a portion of what is available to the children? Is the school telling lies - or do the pictures only show part of the story?

Next up - why on earth didn't the Daily Record, and others, think to ask such a basic question? That might mean a bit of proper journalism and a proper article, of course, but you could be forgiven for thinking that that was what they're there for.

Perhaps Lord Leveson could have a word?

The paper was out of order in its headline. If there are problems at the school, in terms of the choice of food that is prepared and served, then it's unlikely to be the responsibility of the staff on the lowest rung of the decision-making ladder.

It's all well and good thinking you've come up with a great pun - and you really wouldn't want to know about some of the ones I came up with for headlines in my days as a sports hackette - but you can't effectively create a different story for the sake of such a headline.

If the dinnerladies really did feel that their jobs were under threat, then, assuming they're directly employed, it's only the council that can fire them. Is the council swinging the axe and leaving many of its employees in fear? Do they fear being privatised, with the possible attacks on their terms and conditions?

And then there's the blog itself. One of the other claims that has been made is that the only parents to complain about school lunches at Lochgilphead are Martha's parents. Is this true? If so, why have they complained? What is the nature of those complaints? What is the history of those complaints?

Are other parents satisfied? If so, why? If not, why not – and why haven't they complained too? The school itself, incidentally, apparently had no problem with the blog.

It seems that, amid the mess that this case has become, the only thing that is clear is that we do not know the full story.

Indeed, let me take this a tiny bit further.

Earlier, I posted a couple of sentences from the blog. Here they are again: "I'm a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can't do it on one croquette. Do any of you think you could?"

Now I'm no expert, but to me, that does not sound like the voice of a nine-year old child. Does a child of that age really, entirely off their own bat, raise the question of the amount of food required for concentration during the afternoon?

Was Martha really ever fed just one croquette to get her through an afternoon? (This goes back to whether the choice available at the school was as represented in the photograph – or involved more) If not, does a child of that age really then exaggerate down in such a fashion to make such a point?

Whatever the reality is, there is more going on in this case that meets the eye - and certainly more than some people seem to have considered.

And before anyone suggests otherwise, I am not, for a minute, suggesting that Martha has done anything wrong.

But let's be clear: journalists need to ask questions and newspapers have a responsibility not to publish uninformed crap. Or they should have. Just as much as councils should try to avoid utter panic when faced with something popular in social media.

The whole sorry story does raise other, wider questions. What is the obsession with giving children masses of choice for the school lunch - particularly if at least some of what is on offer is piss poor?

To do a spot of harking back for a mo: when I was at school, we didn't have a choice. We were served plain food, freshly cooked. We ate it. And we survived.

Look across the Channel. The French do not consider school meals, in general, as something to simply serve to poor children.

These days at least, they see them as playing an important role in educating all children about eating well. They don't offer choices. Schools offer a multi-course meal where children sit down properly and are expected to eat properly - often without making much noise at all.

They teach their children to take food seriously. Remember - the French do not have the obesity crisis among young people that we do.

Perhaps there lies part of the problem in the UK: so obsessed have we become with everyone being 'consumers' and 'customers' that we are educating children to be that. And perhaps we feel that, to facilitate that, we have to offer them 'choice' - even when that 'choice' involves patently rubbish options.

Perhaps the problem that Martha's parents have is this - that by giving their daughter choices, the school creates a situation where she makes what they consider to be poor choices.

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

So, to conclude: there are lots of questions, but very few answers. Cackhanded panic from the council, unprofessional, irresponsible headlines from the Daily Record and hysteria online.

And old Descartes had a damned good point.


  1. Food for thought here. Totally agree with your comment that a lot of the language on Martha's blog doesn't seem to come from a child. At all. I'm assuming a fair bit has been written by her father. Which is fine I guess, but at the same time makes me feel the blog is less genuine. And, I've wondered if this is just a very clever PR stunt orchestrated by the charity that benefits (and apparently the person running it is practically a neighbour).

  2. Ho. Thanks for commenting.

    I didn't know that about the charity being run by someone they knew.

    So yes, that really does add to suspicions. I mean it's guessing – but then so much of this has seen people simply leap in without bothering to even ask questions.