The more things change...

Hey, did you know one of the classic tabloid PC Gone Mad urban legends had cropped up again recently? I had no idea, but a couple of months ago, the old favourite 'can't even sing Baa Baa Black Sheep any more' story got a brand new airing in the Daily Mail.

There's something new in this latest version. I hope you're sitting down for this, because it might be a bit shocking for you. Ready?

This time, the Mail reports the story honestly. Well, almost.

PC Gone Mad stories in the papers usually go like this:

  • Bold claim in the headline about something being BANNED because of PC Gone Mad. 
  • Lede that either restates the headline or waters it down a bit by saying something like 'a council has BANNED...'. 
  • Quotes from people the hack has rung up to ask what they think of the thing being BANNED because of PC Gone Mad. 
  • List of other things that have allegedly been BANNED in the past that leave out any facts that cast doubt on those cases. 
  • A quote from someone explaining nothing has been banned and it's all a misunderstanding in the last couple of paragraphs.

The headline of this one is: 'Baa Baa Little Sheep: How private school abandoned nursery rhyme's lyrics for Easter show sparking political correctness accusations'.

There's only one school mentioned there in the headline. It's made clear that the school is private. The lyrics are abandoned rather than BANNED. There are only accusations of political correctness rather than a bold statement.

The story itself breaks the traditional template too. It's clearly presented as being about how parents saw their kids singing 'Baa Baa Little Sheep', accused the school of political correctness and got a response saying it's nothing of the sort. There are no Philip Davies style buffoons being quoted - just parents and the school. There's even a quote from a parent who seems to accept the change isn't because of PC Gone Mad. The response from the school is not buried in the final paragraphs, but is made part of the story.

If other PC Gone Mad stories were set out like this, they'd never cause the requisite outrage or find themselves bona fide urban legends. They'd never lead to stories like this one, where people see a change and instantly assume it's because of not offending black people.

There's an interesting quote from a parent, who says:
It’s good they want children to think about what different words mean. But this is one nursery rhyme I personally don’t think should be used because it could be so easily misconstrued as political correctness gone mad. They have got to be a bit smarter about it.
Unfortunately for this parent, even if you leave Baa Baa Black Sheep alone you can run into trouble. Back in 2009, I looked at a similar story about playfully changed lyrics to 'What shall we do with the drunken sailor?' Any change of any thing at any time that could be slightly conceivably because of Political Correctness will be accused of that anyway.

I did say the story is only almost honest though, and here's why. The story keeps one traditional PC Gone Mad story technique. It lists other instances of Baa Baa Black Sheep being banned because of PC Gone Mad while leaving out important details. Important details like how the song wasn't banned because of PC Gone Mad.

The story it mentions from 2006 was actually almost identical to this one. Two nurseries sang 'Baa Baa Baa Rainbow Sheep', got accused of PC Gone Mad and pointed out they were singing different words to teach kids vocabulary. The quotes around the 'equal opportunities' here are mendacity quotes.

The 'Some children in London have been taught ‘Baa Baa Green Sheep’ line leaves out quite a lot. This is actually a reference to the original Baa Baa Black Sheep PC Gone Mad story from the 80s, which was reported as being a ban by Hackney Council when in fact it was based on one nursery the council never even ran.*

The 'And in 1999, Birmingham City Council said the rhyme should not be taught at all because it was racially negative' line leaves out some vital information, which is the Council had been given some guidance by an external agency that was so dusty and old it had forgotten about it, and as soon as an inspector mentioned it once to one nursery, they scrapped it.

Still, this is a far more honestly presented PC Gone Mad story than I'm used to. Who knows why? It could be because the school is private so there's less of an incentive for the writer to instantly disbelieve the head. It could be because past stories have been debunked, but that's unlikely since a few of them have been rehashed as true here (unless they were added later by a sub). Who knows?

Whatever the reason, it's good to see the Mail not instantly jerk its knee about any story involving not saying the word 'black'.

* This is a pretty interesting story about how myths spread in its own right. Apparently back in 1986, a hack at the Star uncovered a nursery in Hackney (Beevers) that wasn't singing the traditional lyrics to 'Baa Baa Black Sheep'.

The hack contacted the council's press officer, who looked into the story, realised the nursery was run by parents and not the council, and advised making a statement that whatever the nursery was doing was up to them. The council leader changed this to say that although the nursery was independent, the council supported the ban.

This made the story explode, since it gave the impression that there was a widely supported ban on the nursery rhyme for being racist.

But, shortly after, a hack on the local paper contacted Beevers nursery himself. Turns out there was no ban after all.

The story was still picked up by other papers who reported it as true, and the Mail uncovered a similar ban by Haringey Council (that turned out to be fabricated, natch) and the story continued to grow.

The twist in the tale is that after this story was widely reported, some people in nurseries thought there really was a call to ban 'Baa Baa Black Sheep' because of racism, and actually stopped singing it.

In his campaign for the 1987 General Election, Neil Kinnock even attempted to debunk the myth when he visited a nursery and sang nursery rhymes, including 'Baa Baa Black Sheep'. It didn't work though, and we're here a quarter of a century later with people still assuming the ban is widespread.

There's more detail about the original story here, and in Julian Petley's 'Culture Wars: The Media and the British Left', which looks at how a lot of classic 80s PC Gone Mad stories we still hear about today got their start. They're not all true you know.


Nick Kiddle said...

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have made any difference to the comments, with the usual screeds against PC-gawn-mad and anyone suggesting it's a non-story getting thoroughly downvoted.

Anonymous said...

Great article, welcome back.

Missed these - though can understand why you've stopped, so no pressure. ;)