Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Government admits there was no evidence to support Eric Pickles' Winterval Tale

Apologies for talking about Christmas in late January, but the wheels of Government are not known for rotating especially quickly.

You may recall that, back in late November, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles won some easy headlines by demanding that councils stick to calling Christmas Christmas and not allow "politically correct grinches" to declare "War on Christmas" by rebranding it as "Winterval, Winter Lights and Luminos". He added that all three shoud be "consigned to the dustbin of history" forthwith.

The problem is, as numerous people pointed out at the time, no local authority has ever declared war on Christmas by calling it Winterval, Winter Lights or Luminos. All three were umbrella terms for season-long festivals that included Christmas. As Birmingham City Council said of Winterval (which was consigned to the dustbin of history in 1998):
"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".

In all three cases the tabloids had taken something innocent and sensible and spun it into an attack on Christmas itself. So I wrote to Eric pointing this out and asking him to apologise for making misleading statements.

A month later I received a letter from one of his civil servants. It failed to address any of the points I'd made and simply told me that Eric Pickles thought Christmas was great. So I filed an FoI request asking the department to release the research or data on which Eric's claims were based. Today I received a reply:
"I am unable to provide you with the information you requested as the Department for Communities and Local Government does not hold it. This Department does not carry out research on this matter, and whether and how to celebrate the festive season is a decision for individual local authorities. Mr Pickles was making the point that councils should continue to take pride in Britain's Christian heritage and traditions at Christmas and also reminding them of the potential to boost the high street economy by embracing the spirit of the festival."

It's very clear - there is no evidence of local authorities, politically correct grinches or anyone else attempting to ban, rebrand or declare war on Christmas. The Department has never even tried to find any.

What does this prove? Quite simply, that Eric Pickles isn't that bothered by facts - if it was in the Mail it must be true, so why bother checking something accuracy if it fits the "Common Sense War on Political Correctness" narrative you're pushing.

It would have been bad enough if the made-up "facts" had merely been pumped out by the Conservative Party press office - Eric's Winterval Tale first appeared in one of their press releases. However, two days later the same message was released by the civil servants in the Department for Communities & Local Government press office. Could they not be bothered to check the facts either, or does Pickles - who once claimed to keep a revolver in his desk drawer with which he planned to shoot any civil servant who told him something he didn't want to hear - so intimidate his staff that head of news Michael Winders is no longer concerned about accuracy provided Uncle Eric gets what he wants?

It seems that DCLG is THE department for made-up news right now - earlier this month Eric's deputy Grant Shapps claimed that Manchester City Council was spending £40,000 on a "Twitter Czar" who should be fired before any frontline council workers lost their jobs. The story was complete bollocks, sourced, of course, from the clippings file of the Daily Mail.

And Eric is also believed to have shelled out taxpayers' cash on legal advice after someone in his department - most likely one of his special advisers, Giles Kenningham and Sheridan Westlake - attempted to smear the name of the head of the Electoral Commission.

But don't expect Pickles to get in hot water over his department's lies and smears any time soon - as I said before, his rentaquote "common sense" approach chimes perfectly with the agenda of the Mail, Sun, Telegraph et al, so the mainstream media aren't exactly queuing up to point out his shortcomings.


Unknown said...

Now there's a surprise...

Derek Tickles said...

Great blog, keep up the fight.

Eric Pickles has to learn that he can't just spout rubbish without evidence. He is suppose to be the Secretary of State not some drunken old geezer down the boozer.

Scottie said...

Great bit of work!

It's such a shame there's no way of making Pickles - or any politician - answer for things they've said to the press.

Especially pieces like this where it's not actually caused any change for anyone; the people he is supposedly targeting look around bewildered and get on with their life. However the uncomfortable feeling that "they" are changing Britain for the worse is re-enforced in the minds of newspaper readers.

It's subtle propaganda at its finest. An idea floated long enough to trouble people then it disappears from sight like a wisp of smoke leaving nothing but a lingering smell.

Frederika Whitehead said...

What's really disturbing is that Pickles's rhetoric is bolstering the English Defence League who sent this letter to counils threatening them with voilence protests if they failed to celebrate christmas appropriately.

: Dear Sir/Madam

I am writing to you on behalf of Tommy Robinson, leader of the English Defence League.

Tommy would like to request that if your Council is considering any Christmas celebrations i.e. Christmas lights, nativities, pantomimes etc. that the Council keep the word Christ in Christmas and do not lose the meaning of Christmas by changing it to Winter Festival.

As I'm sure you are aware Christmas is a long established tradition in British history and indeed other cultures/religions and dates back as far as 400AD and the word Christmas is derived from the Middle English language Christemasse and old English Cristes maesse.

Please keep Christmas as Christmas and not let our culture and traditions be eroded and preserve English values.

Any Council that does not keep the word Christmas in the annual celebrations and opts for Winter Festival, out of the politically correct appeasement of others to the detriment of our traditions, will have their town visited by the English Defence League throughout the following year. The average cost to the Council is £500,000 when the English Defence League demonstrates at any given location and it is hoped that this will be avoided by your Council keeping the word Christmas alive and celebrating it without any worries of appeasement.

Yours faithfully
Helen Gower
PA to Tommy Robinson

Frederika Whitehead, The Guardian