Food for thought

A simple photo.

Such a powerful thing. It can demonstrate bare, unpalatable truths. It can lead to a swift journey to the courtroom. It can certainly frighten the hell out of people, especially those in authority. And even more so when there are children involved.

You might have seen the storm erupt last night and this morning. Martha Payne, 9 year old blogger, had a regular audience for her blog reviewing school dinners. But after being taken aside by the school head, the will of the local council was brought to bear and she was told that she “could not take any more photos of my school dinners because of a headline in a newspaper today.”

Cue instant outrage. Without doubt, the local authority should have known how the internet reacts to things like this. “Censorship”, “stifling of creativity” and “fear of being held to account” are some of the kinder things being thrown at Argyll & Bute today. Inevitably of course Martha’s blog is now one of the hottest properties online. This one is certainly not going to go away quietly.

But we haven’t seen the council’s side of things yet. That they were unprepared is a massive PR fail – completely inexcusable – and my heart goes out to the poor staff up there right now who are trying to ram a trillion gallons of shit back into the silo using their shoes as scoops.

Is there any defence for this sort of behaviour? For the communications cock-up, well no. Not really. (Unless we take into account the fact that all has not been well in the PR department at Argyll & Bute for some time. Remember this? Do they actually have any comms people at the moment?)

But in terms of why they might do such a thing? Quite possibly.

We don’t yet know what their arguments will be, and I am very keen to see them published [update: 11:30 15 June - they have now, see foot of post]. Remember that the only actual evidence so far is a child’s reporting of a headteacher’s words, plus a father’s statement that the council have confirmed “it was their decision to ban Martha’s photography”. Does that mean this is primarily about photo issues, rather than blogging per se? Maybe.

So what are the photo issues here that might be troubling the council? If I may, I’ll just park the “obvious” one – that they don’t want to be criticised publicly. The evidence so far is that there’s been some minor improvement, perhaps attributable to the blog. As such a stance would be frankly indefensible, I won’t waste time opening it up at all.

No, the relevant issues to my mind are some old favourites in relation to images and technology: place, control, liability and of course precedent.

Let’s take the last of those first, as it’s quite easy to engage with. Meet Trixabell. Trixabell is eight, and a highly groomed pageant queen. With a teeny bit of help from mum and dad, she launches PlaygroundBeautyTrix.com – a vlog that each day features her giving fashion and make-up tips to girls from 6 to 9, all filmed, yes, in the school playground. It’s a massive hit. (Can’t think why.) Habbo-hell duly follows.

The slow progression from kids being allowed to bring mobiles into school at all, then from texting to MMS, from IM to Facebook, from photo-blogging to… And thus runs the escalation argument. If you don’t have some pretty blunt lines about user generated content that puts the school at its very heart, things will get really sticky down the line. What sort of guidelines would be nuanced enough to do a “some things are ok to blog, some things aren’t” job? I wouldn’t fancy writing them (and I’ve written a few).

But beyond the “capability to broadcast” argument lie some about the nature of a photo itself. Where it’s taken matters. Quite sensibly, many non-public locations carry with them restrictions on photography. I very much imagine that schools fall into this category (let’s do the full public/private/who-paid-for-it space analysis another day, hey?). If I, as a photographer – even one visiting my kids – walked in during a normal school day and started firing off shots, even if they weren’t of children, I’d be very likely to be hauled up for it.

And I think that’s ok. A general presumption that “everywhere is ok for a photo” might satisfy some people’s urges for blanket transparency, but there’s no doubt that it would change the character of some spaces that we’d previously thought of as “reserved” in some way. (School as a “child reserve” – there’s a thought.)

So if the photo ban makes sense for a visiting adult, is it that easy to waive it for an incumbent child? Again, I’d love to see those guidelines. (NB. Martha refers frequently to her “camera” so I’ll assume the food pics were not taken with a phone, and therefore there’s no easy subsuming of this into the school policy on phones.)

Then there’s the issue of scale. Practically speaking, a snap taken on a phone and sent as an MMS is going to be hard to forbid in practice (assuming you allow phones into school – a distinct matter). And anyway, does a one-to-one passing on of a pic have the same risk profile as a blog upload which has a regular readership in the thousands? Definitely not, I’d say. Martha’s pics were of food, not people. But that doesn’t mean to say they might never be.

And then, when a livid parent wonders why their child’s identifiable face now features in tech and lifestyle reports across the world, the authority with responsibility for what happens in schools will have a shitstorm of another type to deal with. Which could get expensive for them, and in turn, their ratepayers.

Martha is starting to get pics from around the world – again, this extends the risk of “child’s photo taken and distributed without consent” to a whole new range of jurisdictions and pitfalls.

We can say of course that Martha is responsible and wouldn’t do this. That she’d keep her ever-growing platform safe and on-topic. But that’s placing an increasing responsibility on a 9 year old. And we have a whole separate area of ethics and law dealing with age-related responsibility, for very good reasons. Is it ethical to give her that responsibility, or to turn a blind eye when she takes it?

So. PR balls-up for Argyll & Bute? Yes, certainly.

Instant simplification of many complex issues facing a society adjusting to new networks and technologies? Maybe not.

Note: one of the great things Martha also did with her blog was divert some of the attention to a very good cause. Take a look.

Update: 1130, 15 Junethe defence arguments have now been published. [NB. This link now points to the updated press release - Argyll & Bute overwrote the original at the same URL. Tut, tut. But you can find the text of their original press release here.] None of the thoughts above seem to be mentioned, or even considered. Instead, it’s a defensive piece arguing that the blogging was giving a selective picture of the food available, and was therefore being censored (my word) on the grounds of fairness to the caterers. Oh dear. Plus there’s a specific denunciation of the notion that the blog might have had any effect on policy or practice – when a smartly written response might well have given a benevolent wink in the direction of “always welcoming feedback from service users”. Massively well done. But given their well-documented staffing issues in the comms department, it was probably written by the Town Hall cat. So well done for that, too.

Update: 1330, 15 June – Live on the World at One, Argyll and Bute council leader Roddy McCuish swiftly reverses the decision to ban the photos (actually, pleasing to see an elected member take the hot seat rather than the official they’d previously said would appear). But Roddy does take a little meander en route, slagging off the press for making such terrible headlines out of these things. Will somebody drop the poor guy a note about how the world works? Anyway. Fat lady sings. All over. Take this one off the “campaign” pile and file it under “social media disaster” case studies.

Update: 1443, 15 June – Thanks to Adrian Short for the admirable fisking of the first Argyll & Bute press release, and the link to the new-and-improved version.

16 thoughts on “Food for thought

  1. I think that local gov bods have been getting better over recent years but each time there is an opportunity to get a good engaged outcome into the authority, they still default to shutting the silo doors.
    We need to encourage them to live by their mantras and if a child uses an unexpected medium to discuss issues in their lives, they need to respond with extra care and consideration.

  2. Unsure on legal position, but common practice in UK schools is that photography is at HT discretion, which in itself seems to depend upon if a child is the subject of a picture or identifiable from it. A picture of a plate of food as an international charity project should surely not be hampered by child protection issues..?

  3. The school apparently gave Martha permission to take the photos of the dinners, so the “where it’s taken” argument cannot really be used…

  4. I assume that if she were breaking school rules the head teacher would have pulled her up on it before now, since the blog has been running since April.

    The council have turned what could have been a PR coup, since they seem to have already reacted to some of the problems brought up in the blog, into a PR disaster.

    A quick view of the blog this morning shows the pageview count turning over faster than Lewis Hamilton’s odometer.

  5. As a school governor with responsibility for communication I accept every point about child safety in your piece. It may be that that is why Argyll & Bute made their decision, however that does not make the decision either correct or proportionate.

    Certainly they should have called Veg, and her parents, in to the Head’s office and explained the risks and agreed some strict boundaries. No other children to be identifiable at all without the explicit permission of their parents/carers being the first and most obvious.

    With that done they should then have been engaging with the blog and celebrating the fact that one of their primary age students was writing a well thought out and popular blog. Simply being enthusiastic about writing and persevering with it at that age would be grounds for some celebration alone.

    Instead the council have stamped on a pupil’s enthusiasm, a step which may (or may not) have a profound effect on her eagerness to put as much effort into the next idea she has. Educators place a great deal of importance in providing positive and constructive feedback to all students as part of a cycle of good educational practice; whatever reason Argyll and Bute has for its decision, the manner of its delivery and finality of it are not justifiable.

  6. Should that not read as follows?

    “…who are trying to ram a trillion gallons (4.546 trillion litres) of shit back into the silo using their shoes as scoops.”

  7. A very well written post Paul (as usual).

    As a governor and a parent at a primary school, the issue and topic of school dinners is very emotive and one which needs more awareness and action in order to improve quality, nutrition and costs.

    The young girl has obviously raised a huge amount of awareness and has actually transformed the way school meals are provided in her school and the wider community it would appear.
    In any other circumstances this would be news in itself, but somehow it took until the story was stopped that the wider community took notice and were championing the cause of this young girl.

    I wonder what the outcome of this would have been if the school had actually provided the platform and had linked the learning into the curriculum. I know many schools are now providing public blogs for pupils in primary schools to showcase learning.

    For me the learning is more about how we now encourage more and more kids to be passionate about issues that concern them in school and to be open about that – the challenge for schools and teachers is in making the links to curriculum outcomes.

    I’m sure this won’t be the end of this discussion

    Carl

  8. In my experience public sector organisations are unable or unwilling to engage with social media as a communication tool. They generally use it to distribute one way communications and they don;t engage with people through it. When something like this happens they feel the need to stop people discussing things and of course that just backfires. The whole premise of social media is something that goes against traditional municipal public relations practice.

  9. This is how their statement starts …
    “Argyll and Bute Council wholly refutes the unwarranted attacks on its schools catering service which culminated in national press headlines which have led catering staff to fear for their jobs.”

    So ‘the attacks’ have been going on for some time? And they culminated in a Daily Record headline. So where we’re they before this? We’re these attacks on Veg’s blog? Is that what they are insinuating? Well, where on the blog? Cos I’ve read it, and I can’t find them. This is a very poorly written rebuttal. Needless to say whoever wrote it will not be paying damages out of their own pocket.

  10. When I left my reply, I did worry that I hadn’t waited for the council’s side of the story to emerge. I needn’t have bothered.

    Their woeful attempt at justifying their actions on the basis of little more than ‘she said nasty things about our food and we don’t like it’ has only served to harden mine and the majority of other people’s opinions.

    It is as Gordon states above, the authority shows no ability to grasp how to engage with social media, or indeed how their spiteful and crass response will be seen and amplified within that environment.

    This case should really act as an exemplar to all public bodies on how not to deal with criticism.

  11. I find your article helpful as it articulates in a straight-forward manner the complexity of the Veg-gate case which has escalated as various agendas seek to hijack the moral high ground. Influences abound around our children & my hope is that adult grievances are not being served up by the compliant, honest and innocent. Differences of opinion, beliefs and processes are freedoms we should embrace. Human sacrifice, at whatever age,is not one I relish.

  12. I’m interested in why the media outlet which published the line about sacking the dinner ladies has come out of this unscathed. Isn’t it their shallow headline which caused the council to place the ban as a reaction to genuine staff concern? The council haven’t done the best job in getting their point across but it appears to me (correct me if I’m wrong) that the council only banned the photos after their own staff complained – about something in the news story, not the blog.

  13. it’s a good point Sarah – the Council Leader on the radio earlier made it too. But it doesn’t excuse the (short-lived) ban. What the papers write is their responsibility, not Martha’s.

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