Monday, 29 November 2010

A letter to Eric Pickles

I've just sent the following letter to Eric Pickles, following his "Winterval" madness over the weekend. I'll keep you all posted about any reply I receive...

Dear Secretary of State,

Several newspaper articles published on Saturday 27 November contained comments from you attacking the “politically correct grinches” who have declared a “war on Christmas”.

Despite your very public commitment to transparency there are no details of your statement on the Department for Communities and Local Government website, so I am forced to assume that you were quoted correctly when you said the following:

“The war on Christmas is over and the likes of Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminous should be in the dustbin of history. It is in councils’ financial interests to draw in shoppers to their town centres at Christmas. Shoppers want to see Christmas lights, Christmas trees, carol services and nativity scenes, and local councils should not hesitate to support them."
As many, many people have pointed out many, many times, the so-called “War on Christmas” is a tabloid invention. For example Winterval – which as it last took place more than a decade ago has already been consigned to the dustbin of history – was not a replacement for Christmas but a series of separate events that included Christmas.

Indeed, an official statement from Birmingham City Council published by the Guardian earlier this year pointed out that the Winterval event:

“was a promotional campaign to drive business into Birmingham's newly regenerated town centre. It began in early November and finished in January.”
Surely this is exactly what you are asking councils to do? The council statement continued:

"There was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas".
This really doesn’t sound like a “War on Christmas” to me.

In 2008 Oxford City Council ran a two-month series of winter events, going under the banner of “Winter Lights”. Again, Christmas played a huge part in the season-long event. At the time, Oxford City Council issued the following statement:

"Oxford City Council has not 'banned Christmas' and has not banned the use of the word 'Christmas'. The Council has not even considered doing either of these. Oxford City Council will celebrate Christmas 2008 in the same way as it has celebrated all previous Christmases: we will have Christmas trees in the Town Hall and in Broad Street, the Lord Mayor will host a Christmas reception for community workers and will hold the annual Christmas Carols event, and we will be sending out Christmas cards.”

As before, if the council wanted to declare war on Christmas it chose a rather half-hearted way in which to do so.

The idea that Luton Council had tried to rebrand Christmas as Luminos to “avoid offending Muslims” has also been comprehensively rebutted and rejected. As with Winterval and Winter Lights, Luminos was the umbrella term for a series of events that included Christmas. Six years ago Luton Council issued the following statement, which is still available on their website:

Luton Council has reacted angrily to national newspaper claims that it has "cancelled Christmas" for fear of "offending Moslems". Reports in The Sun led to scores of people ringing the town hall to complain last Friday. But council officials dismissed the story as "utter nonsense", saying that the town's traditional Yule time celebrations were in full swing during the run-up to the holiday.

Explained an exasperated council leader David Franks: "The Sun decided to re-run an old yarn about a highly successful 'Luminos' weekend festival three years ago. We had started with a Friday lantern procession to mark Diwali and ended as usual with the traditional switching-on of the town's Christmas lights on Sunday. In between, there was a funfair in the town centre as an added attraction to Christmas shoppers.

"Everyone had a great time, apart from some sections of the media deciding we had "cancelled" traditional festivities. The reports were nonsense then and we were most annoyed to see The Sun repeat the lie three years later."

During the morning the Sun's error appeared in print, town hall staff were flooded with angry emails and telephone calls from misled members of the public. Said a council spokesperson: "We were able to pacify residents when we told them the story was wrong but we're worried that there still some Sun readers who believe this garbage. We have written to the newspaper pointing out their error but have heard nothing so far."

There is no evidence that any local authority in England and Wales has EVER attempted to “ban” Christmas, and the most basic online research shows that the three examples you cited over the weekend are nothing more than tabloid invention. They are simply not true.

With this in mind, can I ask when you will be making a public apology for making misleading and inaccurate statements to the press?

Alternatively, if you have any evidence to support your claim of a “War on Christmas” launched by “politically correct grinches” I would very much appreciate it if you could share it with the wider world. I’m sure your oft-stated commitment to openness and transparency will make such a release nothing more than a formality, but in case you need a nudge in the right direction I should point out that the Ministerial Code states:
“Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.”
I think it would be hard to argue that there’s a public interest defence in not explaining exactly what you were thinking when you made this statements, so I look forward to hearing from you in the near future.

Merry Christmas,

P. Stable


Unknown said...

Bravo! Great letter. It'll be interesting to see if he replies and, if so, how he explains his comments. I wouldn't hold my breath about the public apology, though...

P. Stable said...

The DCLG website promises a response to all emails and letters within 15 working days of receipt, so I should get a reply just in time for the Winterval holidays.

Depending on what the department has to say, I've got a couple of potential FoI requests up my sleeve too...

tonysk14 said...

Would you mind if we copied it and got lots of people to send it in, or do you think that just one has a better chance of getting a serious reply?

P. Stable said...

Their website says the generally don't reply to mass emailings, so maybe best to either do your own or just see if we get a reply to this one.

tonysk14 said...

OK no problem. I shall just wait with bated breath to see if he has any answers. As stated above great letter. Keep up the good work m8.


Anonymous said...

Excellent letter. Its bad enough having to put up with credulous idiots in my local pub regurgitating this tabloid nonsense every Christmas. Now it seems these pub bores have turned up in the Cabinet. Disgraceful and irresponsible behaviour. But then pretty much par for the course with Mr Pickles it seems.

Goldenmane said...

Well done.

I look forward to seeing how this pans out.

Unknown said...

Have you received any kind of reply yet?