Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Advertising is a free speech issue

The ban on junk food ads on British TV is far more 'mind-controlling' than anything a cynical adman could come up with.

I can’t have been the only person who, upon hearing that the Office for Communications planned to introduce a widespread ban on junk food advertising on British TV, thought to himself: ‘Who the hell do these poncy unelected suits think they are?’ And yet there has been little outcry over the ban. Ofcom announced this week that in March 2007 it will introduce a ‘total ban’ on ads for hamburgers, crisps, chocolate and other foodstuffs high in fat, salt or sugar during all children’s programming, on all children’s channels and during any other programmes that have a ‘particular appeal’ to 16-year-olds and under. The only complaint is that Ofcom hasn’t gone far enough. The failure to extend the ban to adults programmes that children also watch – like Coronation Street or, come to think of it, pretty much any show on TV – was a ‘betrayal’ of future generations, who now face the prospect of obesity, ill-health and early death, said health campaigners and commentators.

A far better response to Ofcom’s illiberal, patronising and bizarre ban would have been to tell Ofcom officials to get stuffed, and to disband themselves while they’re at it. I don’t hold a candle for big corporations; I don’t like the fact that they can afford to flog their wares in primetime TV slots or on big brash billboards on street corners, while cash-strapped outfits who make far better products – like spiked, for example – have to rely on word-of-mouth and something called ‘viral marketing’ (which I’ve never liked the sound of).

And yet I would far rather take my chances in the weird and loud chatroom that is the world of advertising than have public space sanitised on my behalf by an unrepresentative quango which, like mother, thinks it knows best. Advertising is a free speech issue, or at least it ought to be. Because behind today’s anti-ad campaigning there lurks a degrading view of the public as fickle and easily bought off, who must be protected from certain words and imagery by better men and women. And that is far more patronising – far more ‘mind-controlling’ – than anything a cynical suited and booted adman could come up with.

The first striking thing about Ofcom’s ban on junk food ads is that the justifications for it are – if you will forgive my post-watershed language – total bollocks. Forget facts or evidence; this ban is based on a creepy combination of scaremongering, snobbery and paternalism.

Ofcom documents and media coverage of the ban constantly refer to ‘junk food’, as if it were an always-existing factual and historical category. In fact, some experts argue that there is no such thing as junk food. According to Vincent Marks, emeritus professor of clinical biochemistry at the University of Surrey and co-editor of Panic Nation: Unpicking the Myths We’re Told About Food and Health: ‘Junk food is an oxymoron. Food is either good – that is, it is enjoyable to eat and will sustain life – or it is good food that has gone bad, meaning that it has deteriorated and gone off.’ For Marks, the ‘junk food’ tag is a moral judgement rather than a health-based one: ‘To label a food as “junk” is just another way of saying, “I disapprove of it”.’ (1)

There’s always a big side order of snobbery in denunciations of junk food – which might explain why Ofcom’s rules will mean that Domino’s Pizzas (an eaterie popular in working-class areas) will have to stop sponsoring The Simpsons, while Gordon Ramsay (whose Channel 4 show The F Word is popular among teens who like his swearing and general cockiness) will still be free to make fatty dishes like duck a la orange and salty pork steaks and chunky chips with their red potato skins still attached. It is hard not to sympathise with the boss of Domino’s Pizzas, who said he might try to get around the new rules by sticking a bowl of salad next to his pizzas because at least salad is seen as ‘good’ grub (2).

Ofcom and its backers claim their tough action is necessary to stop the new generation of Brits from fast becoming the most ‘unhealthy in history’ (3). What, more unhealthy than those kids who lived through (or didn’t live through, more to the point) Black Death, smallpox, wars and food shortages? This is clearly codswallop. In 1900, there were 140 deaths per 1,000 births; that had fallen to 5.7 by 1999 and it continues to fall. Of those born in the early 1900s, 63 per cent died before they reached 60; today only 11 per cent die before 60. A boy born in 1901 could expect to live to 46, and a girl to 50; today a boy is likely to live to 76 and a girl to 81. British children can expect to live more comfortably, and for longer, than any generation in history.

And Ofcom relies on very shaky evidence for its basic premise that banning junk food ads will change children’s eating habits. One of its pieces of evidence is an email from a self-selected group of parents called NetMums, who claim that ‘TV ads for junk food do work – they make children demand junk food which inevitably means more consumption of junk food.’ (4) More serious studies have found little evidence of a clear link between ads and eating habits. As one news report said this week, there is a ‘relative paucity of evidence that TV advertising has much effect on children’s food choices’ (5). An academic study found that ‘just two per cent of all children’s food choices were influenced by TV advertising’ (6).

Ofcom’s ban is based on fear dressed up as facts: children are not as unhealthy as the hysterical headlines claim, and there’s little evidence that the blunt instrument of TV censorship will make them switch from a Happy Meal to broccoli with a side of semi-skimmed milk. What really seems to be motivating Ofcom and its supporters is a patronising view of parents. Mums and dads are seen as powerless to resist ‘pester power’ demands for sweets and snacks. In banning ads during children’s programmes, Ofcom sends a powerful message that parents cannot be trusted to do right by their kids. It is effectively setting itself up as a surrogate parent, making decisions on behalf of mums and dads who are apparently too weak-minded or thick to make the right decision themselves.

We’ve gone from ‘Watch with mother’ to ‘Watch with the strange men and women from a jumped-up quango called Ofcom because they’re more caring than your mother’.

Ofcom likes to present itself as a ‘media literacy’ outfit whose aim is to ensure balance and quality in the communications media in Britain. That is a case of false advertising if ever I heard one. Someone call the trading standards authority. In truth, Ofcom is a petty and censorious organisation seeking to control public debate and public space and protect people from what it views as their own worst instincts. It is at the forefront of new forms of censorship that cloak themselves in ethical lingo and use nice words like ‘diversity’ and ‘respect’ as a cover for clamping down on free speech.

So Ofcom banned a beer advert for giving ‘undue emphasis to the alcohol strength of the product’. Er, why else do people buy beer, if it isn’t for a bit of ‘alcohol strength’? It banned a radio ad that made a pun on the word ‘faggot’ (which can mean a meat product or a homosexual), decreeing that the ad was ‘capable of causing serious offence’. And usually it bans things in response to handfuls of complaints. That beer ad was banned after Ofcom received one complaint, the radio ad after it received three complaints. Recently Ofcom demanded that Hanna-Barbera remove all cigarette-smoking from its entire back catalogue of Tom and Jerry cartoons after it received a single complaint (7).

Ofcom represents the tyranny of the minority. What about the 60 million of us who aren’t offended by strong booze or the word ‘faggot’ or cartoon cats puffing on a cartoon fag? Why should the public realm – that marketplace of ads, goods, debate and argument – be designed to the tastes of tiny handfuls of people who are weirdly oversensitive? Outraged of Oldham was once restricted to writing cranky green-ink letters to the local paper. Now, thanks to Ofcom and its mission to ensure that no one is ever offended, he’s dictating what images and words the rest of us can see and hear.

No, the world of advertising is not a level playing field. Yes, big corporations can speak more loudly and to more people than you or I can. But we should still defend advertising from today’s gracious and caring censors. You can’t make things more equal or free by running to powerful bodies like Ofcom and pleading with them to punish the nasty corporation and its adman who offended your sensibilities on the train to work. I would rather be Richard Branson’s potential target than Ofcom’s bitch; a free citizen or consumer able to make up my own mind about what I want to buy from companies that are at least upfront, rather than the charge of a powerful quango whose board members I don’t know from Adam.

From Ofcom’s attack on junk food ads to those campaign groups who demand bans on ads for 4x4s, cheap flights, cigarettes and booze: the argument seems to be that people are gullible and thus must be watched over by caring men and women in positions of power. Funnily enough, that is the same justification used by censors throughout history, from Torquemada to Tony Blair: all of their bans are about giving a sedative to society, sanitising public discussion, and protecting people from an alleged harm. Thanks, but no thanks.

For Karl Marx, the ‘chatter’ of consumerist society was one of the more positive aspects of capitalism. The capitalist ‘searches for means to spur [people] on to consumption, to give his wares new charms, to inspire [people] with new needs by constant chatter etc. It is precisely this side of the relation of capital and labour which is an essential civilising moment…’ (8) So what if ads are sometimes irritating and get into our heads? Forever knowing the tune to ‘Opal Fruits, made to make your mouth water’ is a small price to pay for openness in public space and chatter.


Extremist views? Bring them on, we're ready

By Mick Hume

Back when I was a revolting revolutionary student, Labour students who ran university unions operated under the delusion that shutting up their opponents was the same as defeating them. Thus they demanded “No platform” for everybody from “fascists” (which included Tory ministers) to Zionists or the Moonies. Twenty-five years later those student politicians are running the country. And to judge by the Government’s new guidelines about Islamic radicalism on campus, they have learnt nothing.

The guidelines issued by Bill Rammell, the Higher Education Minister, tell universities how to combat “violent extremism in the name of Islam” by spotting extremists, banning outside speakers or informing the police. Just about everything, in fact, except the one thing that’s needed: some good arguments to explode the conspiracy theories of Islamic radicals.

Despite insisting that the Government supports freedom of expression, the guidelines’ definition of “unacceptable extremism” lumps “incitement of social[?], racial or religious hatred” in with terrorist acts, as if words and bombs were more or less equally dangerous.

There should be room for intellectual “extremism” of all sorts at university, the one place where young people ought to be free to experiment with ideas as well as everything else. Yet these days our ivory towers look more like fortresses of intolerance. Lecturers are wary of raising edgy questions that might offend some students, while freedom-phobic student union leaders seek to outlaw whatever-phobic words or images.

If debate is suppressed and the crazed ideas and conspiracies of Islamic radicals are never openly challenged, they can only fester and spread. Any attempt to silence them increases their credibility. And guidelines that leave the impression that the Government is afraid of a few bearded students are even better publicity for these groups.

Somebody needs to throw some intellectual grenades into university life, with arguments to incite hatred of illiberalism, whether it is offered “in the name of” Islam or of combating Islamophobia. Instead the only argument the guidelines propose concerns the radicals’ “distorted interpretation of Islamic texts”. Students can look forward to more sermons about the real meaning of being a Muslim from those noted Islamic scholars in new Labour.

Back in my day I recall one Labour union official with a megaphone, ordering Manchester University students to ignore Moonie leaflets. “These people want to brainwash you! DON’T LISTEN TO A WORD THEY SAY!” So in the name of free-thinking, you tell students what not to think about. Today, who needs a megaphone when you have the Minister for Higher Education?


Diversity is divisive

A new manifesto looks set to kickstart a debate about how multiculturalism fosters tribalism and political victimhood.

The manifesto of the New Generation Network (NGN), published this week, has thrown out an impressive challenge to improve the national conversation about racism. Amongst other things, the manifesto calls for a proper debate about multiculturalism, an end to ‘communal politics’, and it criticises self-appointed ethnic ‘community leaders’ for hijacking certain issues (read the manifesto in full here). Perhaps inevitably, much of the debate it has provoked so far is focused on the comments about self-appointed leaders. However, these issues can only be fully understood in the context of official anti-racism measures that have been built up over the past two decades.

As NGN states, we have come a long way since the first Race Relations Act was created in 1976. Back then, racist attacks were more common and prejudice more evident in the immigration service, police, employment, housing and education. Thirty years on, racism is clearly in decline, thanks to the efforts of many progressive activists and the gradual cultural integration of ethnic groups in society.

Yet in many ways, our society is much more anxious about race than before. Early findings from the 2005 Home Office Citizenship survey show that nearly half of all people (48 per cent) questioned believed that racism had got worse in the past five years. This was a rise from 43 per cent in 2001. White people were more likely to say this than ethnic minorities, suggesting that perception does not reflect the reality experienced by most people.

Why has this strange paradox emerged? While people from ethnic minority backgrounds are today less likely to confront old-fashioned racism, they are much more likely to confront multicultural policies and practises that racialise them. The principle of equality – that all people should be treated the same regardless of their skin colour or ethnic background – has now been replaced with the principle of diversity, where all cultural identities must be given public recognition. While this sounds nice and inclusive in principle, the overall effect is that people are being treated differently, which fuels a sense of exclusion.

The ‘race relations industry’ has expanded massively on the back of government policies, legislation and funding. Most public services – housing, healthcare, arts and cultural provision, voluntary support, public broadcasting, and policing – have strategies to accommodate the supposedly different needs of ethnic users. Many organisations now have targets to ensure they are employing enough ethnic minorities.

The effect of such measures, however, is not to get rid of racial categories, but to reinforce their grip on our consciousness. For example, there has been much debate about the lack of ethnic minorities in the media and arts sectors. The reasons are complex, and can be explained by different aspirations, socioeconomic factors and cultural expectations (many of which also affect the white working class).

But the dominance of racial thinking leads to the simplistic explanation that the ‘white male establishment’ is full of bigots. This leads to positive discrimination schemes that put ethnicity before talent, and results in the hired hand being sent to work in this or that department as the unofficial spokesperson for their ‘community’. No wonder these individuals then think there is racism in the sector where they work, when they are so obviously treated as ‘the token ethnic’. Diversity policies often appear as the flipside of old racial thinking, making us see people’s ethnicity first and their (often diverse) talents and interests second.

The most pernicious effect of this new racial thinking is how it fosters tribalism between ethnic and religious groups. They end up competing for resources on the basis that they are more excluded and vulnerable than others. Some Muslim lobby groups have argued that Christian groups already have public funding for their schools and services, so they should, too. In response, there are now Hindu and Sikh organisations demanding their own concessions lest they feel left out. The demand to wear the headscarf one day spurs the demand to wear the crucifix the next. There is a perverse incentive to assert one’s victimisation by others, rather than build alliances. In this climate, no wonder everyone thinks that racism and discrimination is rife.

To challenge the dominance of identity politics, we need to champion an alternative universalist approach. This wouldn’t mean bland similarity, with everybody talking and looking the same. Instead, it would help us challenge the imposition of formal, ethnic categories and allow us to develop richer differences based on character and interests.

A major step towards the universalist approach would be to dismantle the countless diversity policies that encourage people to see everything through the prism of racial difference. We should get rid of ‘tick box’ measures that do nothing to address underlying inequality in areas like employment. And we should interrogate the claims of victimisation made by some organisations to get their slice of pie. If the NGN will help to expose some of the damage being done in the name of diversity, I welcome it.


Business to save British schools?

Business executives should be drafted into schools to help to raise standards, the new chief inspector of England's schools said yesterday as figures revealed that more than half of secondary schools were under-performing. Christine Gilbert, the head of the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), blamed poor leadership and management in schools for persistent poor standards. "We should certainly look at drawing in heads from business and industry," she said. "If you have teaching experience, it may get you to first base quicker, but I do think that schools could benefit from the leadership expertise of people from outside, particularly those who have taken early retirement in their 50s. They could come in as consultants or heads."

Ms Gilbert's comments came after the publication of Ofsted's annual report, which showed that 51 per cent of England's secondary schools were failing to provide a good education for their pupils. With one in eight secondaries and one in 12 schools overall judged inadequate, she said that the proportion of failing schools in England was too high. "The report card for English education has been increasingly encouraging over the past ten years, but it is still not good enough," she said. Of the 6,129 schools inspected last year, twice the proportion of secondaries (13 per cent) were judged inadequate, compared with primaries (7 per cent).

The key to raising standards was good school leadership and early intervention with primary school children, Ms Gilbert, a former history teacher, said. She acknowledged that academies were one possible response to raising standards, but said that only three of the nine inspected were judged effective. There were 46 academies operating and the Government hoped to have 200 by 2010.

Progress had been made, but inexperienced staff and problems recruiting and retaining teachers remained a significant problem. Secondaries without sixth forms suffered the greatest difficulties in raising the achievement among pupils, with more than half (52 per cent) failing to make good progress. At the same time, poor behaviour was disrupting one third of classes in secondaries, the inspectors said.

Those schools that had focused on the underlying causes of poor discipline, such as poor reading and writing skills and emotional problems, found that behaviour often improved.

More than half (58 per cent) of primaries were judged good or outstanding, but inspectors expressed serious concerns about primary teachers' "weak subject knowledge" in science, history, geography, music, art and design and technology.

Ms Gilbert's idea of appointing head teachers from outside the sector drew a mixed reaction. Liz Sidwell, chief executive of the Haberdashers' Aske's federation of schools in South London, said: "As long as the chief executive of a school has people on the management team who understand the curriculum and standards, it could work. The business skills you need to run a school are not the skills that teachers necessarily have."

John Dunford, of the Association of School and College Leaders, agreed that outsiders may make good heads, but added: "You could not recruit straight from business. School leadership is very different from business leadership and business leaders would be the first to spot that." Dr Dunford was very critial of the inspectors' report overall and accused them of setting schools up for failure. "Reports such as these will cause a crisis of confidence among the leaders of the profession unless we start to accentuate the positive aspects of schools' performance," he said. "Of the schools cited as `inadequate', many have good value-added scores for very weak intakes."


British welfare madness: "The welfare state cost 79 billion pounds last year, more than is spent on the entire education system, twice as much as on law and order and almost as much as on the NHS. It totals nearly 3,000 pounds a household a year.There are 51 different benefits, with 39 per cent of households claiming one or more. Although the Chancellor often boasts about his record on unemployment, there are 5.4 million people of working age who are out of work and living on benefits. Many of those are registered disabled; Britain has more long-term sick than any European country besides Poland. The benefits system has become so generous that being "on welfare" is no longer a mark of even relative poverty. Households with incomes of up to 66,350 pounds - which puts them in the richest fifth - can be entitled to welfare.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

While appreciation much of the logic of your arguments here, I think that one must recognise a difference between advertising to minors (who we have a duty to protect) and advertising to the the rest (who can eat themselves to death if the want).

The junk food label is nonsense at an intellectual level. There is nothing wrong with this food at an appropriate proportion in the diet. However, one problem with advertising to kids is that some may eat it excessively and to the exclusion of food that is important in the diet.

It is appropriate for the state to be a nanny to the young and I don't believe that adults should have an automatic right of free speech to youngsters.