I expect this is old news. The current affairs cycle has moved on, and the top story now is the fact that “Page 1: lies about poor people; Page 2: boring bit nobody reads; Page 3: woman in her pants” is still considered journalism in some circles.
However, before it all quietly fades from memory, I’d like to say a few words about The Great OUP Pig Scandal.
|A pig, yesterday.|
Image courtesy of www.publicdomainpictures.net
For those of you who didn’t catch the story - or in case it has in fact completely faded from memory already - here’s a summary.
Early last week, during a discussion about free speech on Radio 4’s Today, presenter James Naughtie said the following:
"I’ve got a letter here which was sent out by Oxford University Press to an author doing something for young people.
“Among the things prohibited in the text that was commissioned by OUP was the following: ‘Pigs (plus anything else which could be perceived as pork’).
“Now, if a respectable publisher tied to an academic institution is saying you’ve got to write a book in which you cannot mention pigs because some people might be offended, it’s just ludicrous, it is just a joke.”
|Some banned pigs, after the ban|
Image from www.publicdomainpictures.net
I’ve got an awful lot of time for Mr Naughtie, especially since his unfortunate spoonerism involving the name and title of then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt. However, on this occasion he got it badly wrong.
Firstly, I don’t think it was okay for him to name-and-shame an individual publisher like this, without asking for their side of the story first. The BBC can be quite stupidly cautious about putting both sides of a story, so for it to accuse a major publisher like this without immediate right to reply is quite bizarre.
Secondly, the wording as reported above (source: Huffington Post) doesn’t make it clear that these are not guidelines for general submissions to OUP. These are commissioning guidelines for their reading schemes which are sold across 200 countries. Such guidelines are quite common within the industry, and singling OUP out is simply unfair.
Thirdly, he jumps to the conclusion that the purpose of these guidelines is to avoid causing offence. This is quite simply wrong. Their purpose is to maximise sales. You will sell fewer books to, say, Saudi Arabia if they feature pigs or pork; and not just of the particular books that mention these subjects. Sales across the entire reading scheme will be affected, because who wants to buy a bit of a reading scheme?
|An OUP book that contains no pigs, |
but quite a lot of badgers.
Fourthly - and in my view - this is where Mr Naughtie got it most wrong - he selectively mentions only the guidelines that refer to pigs and pork products. And, sure, they’re there. As are for instance, if I remember correctly, guidelines that request the author to steer clear of writing about witches or dinosaurs, because these subjects will affect sales in the good old bible-believing US of A. Where’s the outcry about “censoring” authors in order to not hurt the feelings of fundamentalist Christians? Mr Naughtie should have known that singling out a ‘ban’ on pigs like this would feed the subtle islamophobia that is currently much too common in our culture.
And finally: this ‘ban’ on pigs in books commissioned by the publisher is presented as some kind of assault on free speech. Can I just point out that the principle of free speech entitles a publisher to set their own commissioning guidelines? And also that nobody is stopping any author from writing whatever the hell they want, submitting to any publisher, and - if they can’t get a deal for it - publishing it themselves on the internet?
None of this, of course, stopped opportunistic attention-seekers like MP Philip Davies from calling for government intervention; The Independent reported him as saying, “The Secretary of State needs to get a grip over this and make sure this ridiculous ban is stopped at once.” I tried to engage Mr Davies on Twitter to ask how such government intervention would work, and how he could justify calling for legislation to stop a British business being allowed control over its own commissioning guidelines; but the only reply I got from him was an approving retweet of someone else saying that Mr Davies was not politically correct in any way. I think the word ‘politically’ may have been redundant there.
I suspect the remark that sums this whole issue up best was the one by Francis Maude MP on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions. He began:
“Well, I hadn’t heard this story, and it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever come across.”
In other words: I know nothing about this issue and now I’m going to pontificate about how stupid these people are being.
Sadly, that’s been about the level of debate.
John Dougherty's latest books, the Stinkbomb & Ketchup-Face series, are published by OUP. They contain very few mentions of pigs, but could have lots more if he wanted them to.
He has written reading scheme books for OUP and Harper Collins, and does not believe these books have ever been censored.
His first picture book, There's a Pig Up My Nose, will be published by Egmont next year.
For the first time in his life he phoned Any Answers last week, to talk about this issue, but didn't get on the air.