Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Culture
21 November 2008

And the real filthmongers?

How does the print media manage to remain above criticism when they often do much more harm than the

By Richard Herring

Last week this pathetic non-story broke in the tabloid newspapers, a new flood of self-righteous disgust, as if we hadn’t already been deluged with that enough already. Basically 42 kids who’d been round the supermarket on a school trip (and is it just me or the credit crunch, but haven’t the quality of school trips declined a bit of late? At least we got to go to the Welsh Folk Museum), were given a goody bag at the end of their trip, which included a book which looked like it was appropriate for kids, but which possibly wasn’t quite appropriate.

The pages that led to the furore were encouraging readers to share a bath to save water and was illustrated with pictures of a cartoon man and woman in a bath, trying out different sexual positions.

Obviously this it was a mistake to give it to schoolkids, even though you can’t see the positions because there is a bath in the way, or understand what is going on unless you have had sex. And to be honest, I’ve had sex and done loads of different positions and I don’t know what the Hell is going on in some of those pictures. If you knew nothing about sex, as we like to think that 8 years olds don’t (even though we were fascinated by the subject when we were 8 if we really remember things properly) then the pictures make no sense and can be passed off as people playing in the bath. If they know about sex already, which they probably do, given how much tabloid newspapers go on about it, then no real harm has been done.

In any case the supermarket, realising that they had made an error, apologised, admitted it was inappropriate and made an attempt at compensation.
But this isn’t enough for the judgemental and hypocritical media. They have to create another mini-shit storm around the issue and hysterically claim that our children are being harmed by these filth mongers.

Yet the ridiculous thing about this reaction is that although the Mail (and other papers) are taking the moral high-ground, they are actually reprinting the photos in a national newspaper, that will be seen by far more children than the 42 who were accidentally given the book. The newspapers also added to the offence by explaining that the pictures are depicting sexual positions, which was not the case for the original kids.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

Sainsburys have apologised for the mistake and the offence caused, so what about all these newspapers? What are they going to do about the fact that they have potentially now shown and explained the image to any child who can read? Possibly some five year olds have seen the cartoon and to quote the man in the article, “Young minds are the most malleable and this incident has robbed a large number of children of their innocence. They should be ashamed.”

Content from our partners
How to create a responsible form of “buy now, pay later”
“Unions are helping improve conditions for drivers like me”
Transport is the core of levelling up

Of course the incident has done none of those things, whipping up a furore about it has drawn unnecessary attention to it and made kids who would probably have not taken much notice in the first place really have to think about what is going on.

I guess we’re always going to be stuck with self-righteousness, it just seems to me that the self-righteous do a lot more damage than the people they’re railing against. But I think the journalists are well aware of that. It’s a way for them to spread information that will prove offensive to people, without having to take any of the blame for the offence. Never mind if careers are being ruined or young minds are being polluted in the process. How does the print media manage to remain above criticism when they often do much more harm than the things they are criticising?

Doesn’t the messenger have as much responsibility about the spread of offensive information? Or sometimes more so, by directly communicating a careless or cruel remark to the person it was about. It reminds me of a friend of mine who had recently lost his wife and was obviously very upset about her untimely demise. An acquaintance of his made an off colour joke about the wife to a group of friends, one of those friends then went and told the husband what had been said. Now perhaps the joker was wrong to make such a remark, but he would never have done so had the husband been in the vicinity. So isn’t the person who then chose to relate the joke to the grieving husband actually more at fault than the person who made the joke in the first place? At least did his actions serve anyone or did they just create more misery for someone who didn’t need it and trouble for someone who thought he was making a comment that would stay in the room? Shouldn’t we be shooting the shit stirring messengers, taking the moral high ground, whilst knowing they are doing far more damage than the initial perpetrators of the actions that they are “deriding”.

And of course many, many eight year olds read the New Statesman website, so I have just added to the problem, by spreading news and explanations of these vile cartoon images even further. So perhaps I am just as culpable as anyone. Though I do wonder if we were just honest and open with our kids about a lot of things that we feel should be hidden from them (but which they’re going to find out about anyway, usually creating a whole load of falsity and rumour along the way) then maybe we wouldn’t have so many twisted, confused and self-righteous adults in the world.

And the greatest lesson I think we could give to our kids is that if you make a mistake (which we will all do at many points in our lives) then we should apology and try to make amends for it. In recent weeks, even when contrition has been shown, the media still wants to go in for another kicking.

It seems to me the only people not apologising for anything are the ones doing the shit stirring.

Though now I feel I’ve joined them.