On Winterval and the Mail

Politicians like Eric Pickles have bought into this bogus mythology. No longer.

All my Christmases have come at once with an early gift from the Daily Mail's new Corrections and Clarifications column. "We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas," the newspaper writes today, in response to reader complaints about a Melanie Phillips article.

For media blogging nerds like me, frantically typing this post in a slightly darkened spare bedroom to get rid of the sense of ennui and despair, this is a truly amazing day. For years we've been banging on about media myths and stuff having been made up; for years, we've been patronised or ignored, while politicians like Eric Pickles have happily bought into the bogus mythology as it suits their agenda.

My fellow media blogger Kevin Arscott should take a bow for his stellar essay on Winterval, its origins and its development as a fable that apparently showed the PC Brigade had gone well and truly mad, rather than the throwaway marketing exercise from Birmingham City Council it actually was. Many other bloggers have been pushing the issue for years now. No, Winterval didn't replace Christmas, we said. No, Christmas wasn't renamed Winterval, we said; that wasn't it at all.

The more noise we made, the more it seemed that the stories would return. Winterval was the politically correct way of referring to Christmas; it was taking Christ out of Christmas; it was part of the PC killjoys' attempts to de-Christianise Britain and bring us all into an Iron Curtain world of secularist misery. The myth kept on coming back -- every year, at Christmas time, or before.

These "X is being banned" stories are all essentially the same, when you boil them down. Whether it's poppies being banned by troop-hating fast food franchises, England shirts being banned by immigrant bus drivers or Christmas being banned by killjoy councils scared of offending minorities, the tale follows a standard pattern. The totemic object -- the poppy, the England shirt, the baby Jesus -- is being rejected because of a prevailing spectral force of injustice -- political correctness, jobsworths, The Left and so on -- and there's nothing we can do to stop it. Get angry now!

People do get angry. Facebook campaigns begin. Statements in CAPITAL LETTERS reverberate around Twitter. A little later down the line, when the anger has subsided and the truth is revealed to be not quite as terrible as it was at first made out to be, it doesn't get put right, and so sits around to be woken up again at the next Remembrance Day, or Christmas season, or England appearance in an international tournament.

Now, thanks to the Mail's sensible and ethical new policy of correcting and clarifying where possible, there's the chance to see these things rectified. There it is, in black and white: Christmas was not renamed Winterval. Whenever someone tells you it was, you can point out that the Mail admitted it wasn't. You can even link to the original piece, where a correction has been made underneath the article.

Amid the praise that should be given to the Mail for correcting the Phillips article, there is a slight note of caution. This may well be seen, as Phillips said herself in the original piece, as "the Left" (capital L essential) "muzzling rational debate". Why, it's even got to the stage nowadays where you can't even say something that isn't true in a national newspaper without having to correct it, thanks to the Left! The forces of political correctness and the Thought Police have become so insidious, they've managed to make Paul Dacre willingly clarify Daily Mail articles in the Daily Mail.

Well, I don't think anyone on The Left (I might capitalise the T as well, to make us sound even more SINISTER) wants to see "rational debate" muzzled. It's the "saying things that aren't true" bit; for some reason -- we're just awful people essentially, and hate freedom -- that winds us up a bit. By all means let's have a rational debate about how THE LEFT (it's nicer all in capitals, I think) are shutting down debate by only allowing handsomely paid right-wing columnists to say the same things repeatedly all the time.

But saying things that aren't accurate in a mass-circulation newspaper isn't a very good thing to do, morally or journalistically. Get the facts right and we'll have a debate about the rest.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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