Right then. This may be my favourite story of the year so far (apart from that time a man dressed as a penguin beat the Lib Dems in the local elections).
Martha Payne is 9 years old and lives in Scotland. With the help of her dad, she started a blog called Never Seconds, where she posted pictures of her school dinner each day. She gave it a score out of 10 and noted how many mouthfuls it took her to eat it. In just a few weeks it had over 2 million followers from around the world, including several well known celebrity chefs here in the UK. Readers from Japan, Israel, Finland and the USA sent in pictures of their own school dinners, which Martha reposted. Never Seconds also raised thousands for a school meals charity in Africa – no mean feat for a 9 year old – a 9 year old, remember – who simply wanted to start “a writing project”.
Yesterday, it came out that Argyll & Bute Council had had Martha removed from a class, taken her to the head’s office and told her she was no longer allowed to photograph her lunch, effectively nullifying the point of her project and killing off her blog. This was because of a headline in a local paper along the lines of “Time to Fire the Dinner Ladies” that had, the council said, left staff in fear for their jobs. Martha, understandably upset, obliged, entering a post under the title “Goodbye”.
Of course, it’s human nature to want something we are told we can’t have. So of course killing the blog only led to a massive spike in interest. The story was trending on Twitter for most of yesterday, at least until the England game started, with unanimous and unabashed outrage at Argyll & Bute’s decision. The words “negative PR” don’t really sum up the rolling snowball of criticism, mockery and derision of the council and their incredibly heavy handed reaction – which was, within hours, very publicly overruled.
The original ban made them look draconian and out of touch, shooters-down of freedom of speech, and stamping out an innocent, inquisitive and undoubtedly bright 9 year old and her “writing project”. One person on Twitter commented that “if this had happened in China we would be up in arms”. It didn’t, but we still were – and the comparison will undoubtedly smart. The embarrassing backtracking of having it overturned made them look like idiots.
The council said she “misrepresented” the food options available. In my opinon Martha is, essentially, a food critic – when you review a meal, you review your meal, not everything on the menu. Also, a blog is a personal project – not having been directly associated with the council or by her school (which her blog never named, by the way), she had no obligation to present the ins and outs of the catering available.
The council has managed to overlook a fantastic opportunity sitting right in its palm, and swing to the complete other end of the spectrum – widespread, unanimous and very public criticism. Remember, Martha had permission from her parents (having created the blog with the help of her dad), her school (which was never named), and the support of literally millions of readers across the globe. She was openly praised by celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver, no stranger to challenging authority – which, it is important to remember, is not what Martha was doing. Martha wasn’t using the blog to complain – she gave some meals a score of 10 out 10 and never had anything negative to say about the dinner ladies. The council’s own statement said they’ve “never received complaints” about the dinners. We’re all agreed then. The blog was a place to share, to interact, to document, which is after all what blogging as a platform celebrates.
This was an opportunity for valuable and productive discussion that the council could have celebrated. Picking up Martha’s comments and reaching out to her could have so easily been so positive… can you imagine? Scottish council listening to views of 9 year old school girl about her school dinners blog. It would have portrayed them as caring, engaged with their community, even at the schoolchild level, in tune with new social media…. But no.
It goes without saying should have praised the creativity, maturity and imagination of Martha herself. Sadly, they didn’t – but I hope that the combined praise of just about everybody else who has heard her story is a fitting substitute.