Monday, March 20, 2006

It's the 'Daily Express' Gone Mad, I Tell You

On March 7th and 8th, the 'Daily Express' dedicated two front pages, two leading articles, two inside pages and some space in the letter column to a Very Important Story. It seems that children in a nursery school in Oxfordshire have been made to sing 'Baa-Baa, rainbow Sheep' rather than 'Baa-baa, black sheep', because the traditional version of the rhyme might offend minority groups.

The March 7th front page managed to include the two most important 'P.C Brigade' cliches in a single headline.

Political correctness goes mad at the nursery: NOW IT'S BAA BAA RAINBOW SHEEP

As we've seen, 'Now' is an important 'Daily Express' code word, translating as "It's even worse than you thought". And of course the words 'Political Correctness' can only be used in conjunction with the words 'gone mad'.

The first paragraph tells us various people's opinions, without troubling us with anything as old fashioned as an actual news story.

A nursery school was last night accused of 'ridiculous' political correctness after removing the word 'black' from a nursery rhyme. Teachers at the government-backed school were ordered to change the lyrics of the classic Baa-Baa Black Sheep.

"Was accused of..." Well, the article does contain quotes from a local councilor and an un-named parent, both of whom use the word 'ridiculous', so I suppose that this is literally true. We don't have a factual news item followed by a comment: the fact that someone has made a comment is the news item.

"Last night...." The accusation happened at particular point, sometime on Monday March 6th. The story would be quite different if the accusation had happened in the afternoon. We are being asked to imagine someone rushing into the office late last night, shouting "Hold the front page! We've just heard that a mother in Oxford thinks that her kids kindergarten teacher has done something silly!"

"Were ordered to...." We never quite find out who or what did the ordering.

"Removed" -- An active act of censorship. Positive action taken against the offending monosyllable. Someone with a blue pen going through the Official Text of children's rhymes and 'removing' the B-word.

The core of the story is a quote from a 'mother' who 'did not want to be named for fear of jeopardizing her daughter's place (at the school)'.

" 'Baa baa black sheep' has been one of the most well-known nursery rhymes for generations. For people to come along and fiddle with it is ridiculous. What on earth is a a rainbow sheep anyway?"

Note that Mrs. Anonymous does not tell us anything about what has or hasn't been happening at the school, or how she heard about it. She merely says that she thinks that changing the rhyme is ridiculous. We then get an attributed quote from the 'manager' of the school.

"Basically, we have taken the equal opportunities approach to everything we do. This is fairly standard across nurseries. We are following stringent equal opportunities rules. Not one should feel point out because of their race, gender or anything else."

But wait a minute – Mr Chamberlain has also failed to refer to any actual incident; indeed, to make any reference to sheep, black or otherwise. He's just made some general comments about the school's race policy. And why does he twice use the phrase 'equal opportunities' rather than, say, 'racially inclusive language'. (Surely, 'equal opportunities' refers to which teachers you employ and what kids you admit, not what books and poems you use?) The 'Express' says that the school censored the rhyme in order to 'avoid offending children', but nothing in the quote from Mr. Chamberlain implies this.

There is no news story here. No-one has published a book of censored poems; no-one has issued a press release or a diktat, and (presumably) no 'Daily Excess' hack has been inside the school to report on what goes on. Maybe the toddlers have been singing about rainbow sheep, and maybe they haven't, but there is no hint in the paper about how we know, who reported it, how the story came to light. All we have is a couple of quotes in which people react to having been informed (by whom?) that the words of the poem have been changed.

We have to wait to Day 2 of the story for an actual piece of information to make itself heard.

The 'Daily Express' revealed yesterday how the Sure Start Center in Sutton Courtenay, Oxfordshire, had changed the words of the nursery rhyme. Center manager Stuart Chamberlain had said equal opportunities justified that extraordinary decision.... At the center itself yesterday the staff were still trying in vain to justify their actions. Felicity Dick the nursery's project coordinator, said; "What is ridiculous is that we were actually singing black sheep, white sheep and occasionally rainbow sheep. But afterwards we had a useful discussion about it all. We haven't often sung rainbow sheep as that is not their actual colour of course. And I will say that the children hear have made both black sheep and white sheep to put on the wall.'"

So: we now have an actual fact. At this school, the line 'Baa-baa Rainbow Sheep' has been sung, at least once, in addition to, but not instead of, the line 'baa-baa black sheep'.

But hang on. Isn't that what you do when you are playing with very small children -- make up silly words to well-known songs? Aren't the popular children's jingles precisely the ones where Mummy or Teacher can make up an infinite number of equally irritating verses? After the wheels on the bus have gone round and round a few dozen times, the wipers on the bus can go swish swish swish and the farmer can think up a large number of equally unlikely things to do in his den. If your toddlers have an appetite for yet another round of songs about sheep, then you can just imagine Miss Dick looking up from her piano and saying 'What colour sheep are they this time, children.... Baa-baa-blue-sheep'. The original story, that an un-named Big Brother figure has 'ordered' the school to 'ban' the word 'black' is in ruins.

Very fascinatingly, Day 2 contains a quote from two more parents without names:

One couple whose daughter attends the group felt the nursery's stance had been 'absolutely laughable'. The father said yesterday: 'I think most of us only heard about it today, but it's absolutely ridiculous. But after all the publicity an once we made our views known, I am pleased to say today that they are again singing black sheep.'

"After all the publicity": Mr and Mrs Anonymous have found out about what goes on at school, not from their child or from the teachers, but by reading about it in the 'Daily Express'. We are reading a parent's reaction to a news item which itself consisted of nothing but other people's reactions to a supposed event.

I don't think it is too hard to imagine the way in which these kinds of stories are created.

1: Some school children sing 'Baa baa rainbow sheep' because some teacher thinks it is funny at the time.

2: One child repeats this to his mother.

3: His mother telephone the 'Daily Express', using the 'Do you have a story' number prominently displayed every day on page two, and tells them that she thinks that it is 'ridiculous.'

4: The 'Express' phones round for quotes. The head of the nursery, knowing nothing about what songs Miss Dick may or may not have been singing yesterday, makes a general comment about the school's equal opportunities policy. They ask various people 'What do you think about nurseries singing about amazingly technicolour dream-sheep' and the politicians says 'We think it is rather silly'

5: They publish an article almost entirely made up of comments from people who say it is very silly.

6: Other parents with children about the school, who knew nothing about it read the comments, and also say that it is very silly.

7: The nursery issues a partial rebuttal, saying, yes, we did sing the song with variant words, but no, we didn't have any kind of policy against the use of the word 'black'

8: The 'Express' prints a front page headline implying that this rebuttal represents a change of policy ('Daily Express' halts the rainbow sheep PC nonsense' 'Ewe turn' 'The big climbdown').

A non-news story is follow by a non-event represented as a huge victory. There is no World War II bomber on the moon after all.

All of which would be very funny, were it not being used as a pretext to talk about race issues in general. The Oxfordshire local politician who thinks that rainbow sheep are ridiculous informs the readers of the worlds-greatest-newspaper-and-proud-of-it that "this kind of thing is happening all the time", and we seamlessly segue into a story about a toy-shop owner who was asked to remove three gollywogs from his window. When he got a phone call from a police officer "'I assumed there had been a break in. It's political correctness gone mad." (Twice in one article.)

Now, it would indeed be ridiculous to prohibit the word 'black sheep', which is why no-one has ever done so, but selling dolls which are grotesque caricatures of Negroes -- particularly when the word 'wog' is commonly used as a racial slur – is a much less clear cut issue. And then the co-founder of the sinister sounding 'Campaign Against Political Correctness' asserts that "There are missives coming down from Government bodies about equal opportunities, so schools get into trouble like this." We are no longer talking about a single schools hyper-correct editing of a particular poem: the whole idea of 'equal opportunities' is the problem.

The March 8th article concludes, in a complete non-sequitur, by re-cycling a story about positive discrimination in the police force. A constabulary "caused outrage" by launching "a recruitment drive aimed at gays, lesbians, trans-sexuals and people from ethnic backgrounds" which apparently meant that applications from 'white, heterosexual men" were "torn up". The question of how you deal with the under-representation of minorities is a real one and this kind of affirmative action (if true) is in my opinion rather a blunt instrument for dealing with it. But the 'Daily Express' wants us to draw a connection between the two issues. Banning black sheep and gollywogs and thinking that there should be more black policemen are both examples of the thing called 'political correctness'. Political Correctness is shorthand for the belief that it's Us, white people, not Them, blacks and hoh moh sexuals who are subject to prejudice. Our traditional nursery rhymes are taken away and our job applications are torn up.

England prevails.


American Ronin said...

The only conclusion I can come to is that English print journalism sucks. And that, to combat the threat of this rainbow sheep business, we must elect a new chancellor. A strong chancellor.

Unknown said...

He's back! All very well said as usual, but as a foreigner I have a question or two, mainly just wondering what's a gollyw--

*does Google search*


Er. Well, to tie this in to Mr. Ronin's comment, let's just say that English journalism on the whole, like English racial politics, is really no better or worse than America's. It's just that we're all rather damaged in our own unique and special ways.

Louise H said...

The killer of course is the fact that there is no way to take these "report" out of the public consciousness again.

The Mail has 2.3m average circulation plus all the ones who read the headlines on the newsstand. Whilst most of them have very little confidence (rightly) in their newspaper's accuracy, this sort of story just sticks in the brain. And then it gets repeated on radio shows, and by politicians looking for a soundbite (and no doubt shortly by the Archbishop of Canterbury looking for something right wing to counter yesterday's anti- Creationism in schools sermon) and voila, the shoddy fantasising of a lazy journalist becomes to all intents and purposes the truth.

Maybe the school will complain to the Press Complaints Commission, but somehow I doubt it will be seen as a good use of limited budget.

Charles Filson said...

It would seem that the paper took one example of potentially misapplied political correctness and used the ridiculous example to try to paint all such PC changes as ridiculous.

I wonder if that could be done in reverse. I wonder if you could find one example of a media story in which Anti-PCism is poorly done and overblown, and present it in such a way that people whould infer that all such anti-PC stories are overblown and false. Maybe you could use it to imply that really no PC stuff really happens at all, except where it is very sensible, and all the anti-PC hype is really just fear-mongering.

I wonder if that would be possible.

Theo Axner said...

For what it's worth, in the Swedish version of the nursery rhyme (same tune, fairly similar lyrics) the sheep is white. Can't recall any controversy about it, though.

Theo Axner said...

Oh, and great article, too.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I wonder if you could find one example of a media story in which Anti-PCism is poorly done and overblown, and present it in such a way that people whould infer that all such anti-PC stories are overblown and false. Maybe you could use it to imply that really no PC stuff really happens at all, except where it is very sensible, and all the anti-PC hype is really just fear-mongering.

I am going to stick my neck out here, and say that all such anti-PC stories are in fact overblown and false; that no PC stuff does happen at all; and that all the anti-PC hype really is just fear-mongering.

The story I refer to was not about an isolated, over-the-top, silly application of rules about non-racist language. It was a story with no basis at all. Ditto, the story about banning Christ, banning Christmas, banning Christmas carols, and the one about banning hot cross buns (which hasn't happened yet, but is due in about a fortnight).

Are there no real examples of -- let's call it "hyper-correctness", where a rule about inclusive language is applied in a foolish or over-zealous way? Maybe there are. One assumes that the combined forces of the Mail, Express and Sun are looking for them very hard. So why do the insubstantial cases so often end up on the front page?

NickPheas said...

The problem is though that we, as snooty liberals, assume that all "hyper-correctness" are made up.

If the gollywog story is not made up then it would seem a pretty clear case of overzealousness and wasted police resouce. Getting the police out for a burglary is a struggle. I know when my car was broken into and vandelised to the point it had to be written off they weren't interested. While arguablely objectionable some gollywogs in a shop window sure doesn't seem to justify multiple coppers.

But how would be know if the story was true?

Sam Dodsworth said...

The problem is though that we, as snooty liberals, assume that all "hyper-correctness" are made up.

Well... as Andrew says, if it keeps turning out that they are made up then why is that an unreasonable assumption? Why give these claims more credence than, say, election-time promises or revolutionary devices that use magnetism to reduce your heating bills?

The real irony is that if Private Eye is right (and, being Private Eye, they may very well not be) then the Express isn't even using stories like this to advance a sinister agenda. They're just trying to stop losing readers to the Daily Mail by imitating the competition.

Helen Louise said...

The Hot Cross buns thing:

there's already a story here and a quick Google search reveals that it's made the rounds.

The Suffolk Evening Star reported that the head teacher of the school, Tina Jackson, asked the supplier to provide the buns without the crosses. “Obviously, the hot cross bun is a celebration of Easter but it is not Easter yet,” she told the paper. Jackson did not say whether she would expel students who chanted the traditional English nursery rhyme, “One a penny; two a penny; hot cross buns.”

I'm sure I originally read a follow-up story where it was revealed poor Ms Jackson received hatemail for this anti-Christian act and it turned out the ban on crosses was only until Easter, when crosses would be back!

It's rather disheartening how many of the stories on this prattle on about political correctness, when it's apparently the only school in the UK that's done this and only until Easter.

"Rainbow" sheep is rather brilliant. I am amused at the idea of little kids believing that sheep with rainbow wool actually exist. But then, I used to think unicorns exist and couldn't think why I'd never seen one.

(Do you actually buy the Daily Mail? I'm not sure that it's good for the health!)

Whoever invented the Daily Mail,
ought to be cut down to size.
Pulped and reduced to a nauseous juice,
and dried out at flattened 'til ready for use,
Then covered in newsprint and lies.

Because who'd do that to a tree
raising its head to the sky
Rooted in centuries, telling tall tales,
breathing a green lullaby.
- Leon Rosselson

Helen Louise said...

Sorry, misread, obviously I meant do you really buy the Daily Express?

Charles Filson said...


Just off the top of my head I can think of a number of such times.

Just for instance, last august the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), under pressure from 'concerned citizens' passed a ruling stating that no college that had 'offensive mascots' could host championship games and strongly suggested that they chagne all Native American mascots or imagery.

Mentioned by name in the motion was Florida State University, whose Mascot is the Seminoles, a Native American Tribe.

Sounds good to us right? I mean, it's bad to high-jack somebody's name and use it offensively right?

Of course, FSU has always had a close relationship to the Seminole tribe, and shortly after the ruling banning FSU from hosting Championship games, the Seminole tribal leadership passed a resolution specifically stating that they were honored, not offended, by FSU's choice of a mascot.

I'm sure if I took the time I could come up with plenty of other examples too. anti-PC hype does run amok at times, but so does PC.


Dan Hemmens said...

If you look harder, you can find an even more sinister agenda than anti-PC-ism here (and when I say "even more sinister agenda" I of course mean "something I as a progressive liberal with intellectual pretensions consider disturbing").

The "Black/White/Blue/Pink/Rainbow" sheep concept is not just a harmless bit of fun, it's actually quite a good way of teaching nursery age children about colours. Children will be familiar with the rhyme, and it's quite fun to go around making up different coloured sheep. Indeed one might almost say that the best way to teach somebody something new is by relating it to something familiar.

But the Daily Express and their hordes of outraged readers don't actually care about that. Education takes a back seat to the nebulous ideas of "tradition" and "Britishness". When a child sings a nursery rhyme, it is not trying to learn anything, it is becoming part of a great chain of children who have sung those same words at that same age down through the ages. The idea that one could change the words to something as sacred as a part of childhood is anathema.

On a side note, one also has to wonder whether the next day their headline read: "Political Correctness Goes Mad In Playground: NOW IT'S 'CATCH A FISHY BY HIS TOE'" and then went on to explain how awful it was that the word "nigger" had been struck out of the traditional counting rhyme.

Dan Hemmens said...

Charles: You example differs from the usual Brit Tabloid fare in a number of ways.

What you're talking about is a situation where somebody's legitimate complaint, turned into a general rule, became absurd in one single case. This is always the case when you make general rules.

A few weeks ago Andrew pointed out that technically speaking, some of the poems of Yeats could be illegal under the Glorification of Terrorism bill that the government is trying to pass. This was a legitimate point, used to illustrate an argument about whether a thing can or can not be banned by a central authority. What Andrew did not do was make a post like this:


National bosses Tony Blair and Gordon Brown announced a new barmy law today, that would make all poetry written in Ireland illegal. When I asked Mr J.P Moron of Illinformed, Surrey, what he thought about the new law banning poetry he said: "I think banning poetry is stupid, and Mr Blair is stupid for trying to do it".

I asked a Labour Party Supporter if he thought we should ban writing, and he said we shouldn't. Clearly there has been a change in party policy!

Your example is of a situation in which an extremely sensible idea (stopping insensitive sporting teams having charactature "Injuns" as their mascots) required a single exception (there was one college team that had a legitimate connection to a Native American group). I hope you can see that this is not the same as somebody trying to "ban Christmas".

Andrew Rilstone said...

On a side note, one also has to wonder whether the next day their headline read: "Political Correctness Goes Mad In Playground: NOW IT'S 'CATCH A FISHY BY HIS TOE'" and then went on to explain how awful it was that the word "nigger" had been struck out of the traditional counting rhyme.

Well,not quite. But a contributor to the "Daily Mail" online forum says:

"Little by little, everything I grew up with is being destroyed. This is a truly dangerous state of affairs ...I shall still encourage my grandchildren to sing 'Baa-Baa Black Sheep' and, when they're older and into reading whodunnits, I shall lend them my copy of Agatha Christie's 'Ten Little Niggers'.That is the title the good lady gave to her book and that is how it should remain."

Charles Filson said...

In my kids school, Jack Spat's wife has now been named. It is Jean who can eat no lean. This makes a lot of sense. It rhymes better and it is more sensitive to women as individuals.

Little boy blue was changed to little child blue. This makes almost no sense at all. Most children in my urban school don't even have any idea why letting sheep be in the meadow is a bad idea, why cows shouldn't be in the corn, and why blowing a horn would have anything to do with it. The Rhyme should just be dropped all together.

But neither of these are really examples of PC run amok. Canceling Halloween at my kid's school for fear of offending people from other religions is PC run Amok.
Halloween, as celebrated in America, is not remotely Christian. In fact, most Christians in this part of America hold prayer vigils on Halloween or present 'harvest' costume parties.

Politically correct in this case is tearing down an existing culture on the basis that culture is damging to any who are not native to it. This is Horkheimer’s Critical Theory put into practice.


I'm not sure the example is different. FSU was named in the rulling. Some people got offended on behalf of people who didn't want anybody offended on their behalf. This is an example of PC gone awry.

Dan Hemmens said...

I'm not sure the example is different. FSU was named in the rulling. Some people got offended on behalf of people who didn't want anybody offended on their behalf. This is an example of PC gone awry.

However this example of "PC gone awry" is very different from tabloid examples of "PC gone mad".

What has happened in every single case of "political correctness gone mad" that I have ever experienced is not that somebody has got offended on behalf of somebody else who didn't want anybody to get offended on their behalf: it is that somebody has seen something that differs slightly from their own expectations, and then wrongly assumed that it must be that way because of "political correctness". See for example "banning Christmas", "banning Easter", "banning Baa baa blacksheep" and in one extreme case "banning Christ".

These stories are, in fact, a self perpetuating myth. People hear stupid stories about how you're not allowed to say "blackboard" any more "because of political correctness", and then when they hear somebody talk about a "brownout" they think to themselves "oh, I suppose you can't say 'blackout' any more because of political correctness" and write angry letters to Points of View.

NickPheas said...

“Obviously, the hot cross bun is a celebration of Easter but it is not Easter yet,”

Well I can see her point on this one, and it has nothing at all to do with Political Correctness Gone Mad. It's a perfectly understandable (stick in the mud) objection to the modern fashion for blurring the seasons.

When I were a lad we understood that Christmas Decorations went up on Christmas Eve and came down on 12th Night. Which you had to do or the goblins got in.

Cadburys Creme Eggs were sold from Pancake Day up to the point shops cleared their stocks after Easter Monday. Not sure about Hot Cross Buns since I don't like them.

These days Christmas decorations seem to go up in September and Creme Eggs are on sale all year round.

It'll let goblins in I tell you.

Dan Hemmens said...

Well I can see her point on this one, and it has nothing at all to do with Political Correctness Gone Mad. It's a perfectly understandable (stick in the mud) objection to the modern fashion for blurring the seasons.

And to repeat the point (perhaps unnecessarily), the same is true of pretty much every other story of Political Correctness Gone Mad that you will ever hear.

Singing Baa baa blue sheep helps teach children about colours.

"Before Present" is a far more meaningful measurement of geological timescales than "before Christ".

"Brown out" means a partial loss of power, and is distinct from a blackout.

Some people just use the word "chalkboard" instead of the word "blackboard."

"Winter Lights" is as valid a description for long strings of lightbulbs as "Christmas lights".

Louise H said...

As a creme egg fan I can assure you that they are not generally on sale all year round- if they were then I would be even plumper than I am currently becoming. Post Christmas to Easter only (sniff).

And when are we to get the Fair Trade creme egg? Oxfam has just introduced FT belgium chocolates so there is some hope.

Gavin Burrows said...

For the real truth about Political Corectness, try this lucid and insightful view of the V for Vendetta film.

"Where does all this abhorrent, pro-terrorist, atheist, pseudo-intellectual left-wing politics in "V for Vendetta" originate?

It stems from the communist influence of the Frankfurt School. The Frankfurt School was started in Germany in 1923 by a group of Marxist intellectuals, and modeled after the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow in the Soviet Union. When Hitler came to power in 1933, these Marxists fled to the United States to teach at famous colleges like Columbia University, Princeton and the University of California at Berkeley. Eventually, they became founders and powerful leaders of the counter-culture revolution in the 1960s. This revolution started the movement for "political correctness" in America.

America's education system, its government, its popular culture, its military, its business community, and its news media have been transformed by this insidious Fifth Column of "Cultural Marxism." We are now suffering the consequences of this quiet political correctness invasion. This is what the current Culture War in Hollywood and America is all about."

Andrew Rilstone said...

Last years Hot-Cross-Bun story was completely fabricated, by the way. A rather desperate headteacher kept saying "We haven't banned anything. They aren't on the menu, but they've never been on the menu. Neither has lobster, but that doesn't mean we've banned it." ((Interesting, however, that this version says that its to avoid offending Jehohvah's Witnesses. J.W's of course, don't make use the sign of the Cross and don't celebrate Good Friday. If there were a lot of J.W's in a school, you could imagine a teacher saying: "OK. Fine. Whatever. No buns. They've already withdrawn their kids from theatre trips, music lessons, assemblies, blood transfusions and anything to do with Christmas. I'm not giving them a bally excuse to withdraw them from school dinners as well." Pure speculation.))

When I were a lad, we had things called "bank holidays" which meant that the shops didn't open on Good Friday. We also had things called "shops" which were a bit like Tescos, but smaller. The local bakers shop was allowed to open for a few hours on Good Friday morning specifically to sell Hot Cross buns (out of the oven, hot.) There was always a substantial queue. Was this the only time of the year you could buy them? I don't remember. I also don't remember the muffin man, or when round here was all fields.

Andrew Rilstone said...

My understanding is that they take creme eggs off the market between Christmas and Pancake Day, so that they get a small re-launch at Easter each year.

Andrew Rilstone said...

What you're talking about is a situation where somebody's legitimate complaint, turned into a general rule, became absurd in one single case. This is always the case when you make general rules.

Linguistically, hyper-correction happens when you mis-apply a rule in such a way as to create a new error, as "In 'Ertford, 'Ereford and 'Ampshire, 'urricains 'ardly heh-ver 'appen." In which case, this would literally be an example of "political hyper-correctness". So would the (apocryphal?) case of the police officer warning of an "accident african-american spot".