Friday, 23 January 2015

The Great OUP Pig Scandal

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
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
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.


Heather Dyer said...

Interesting post; people find it so tempting to fan the flames - any flames - don't they?

Joan Lennon said...

Sanely put - thank you!

Andrew Preston said...

If something is common throughout an industry, I see no problem in singling out an individual perpetrator.

Your values, on this issue, look to extend little further than narrow commerciality.

Susan Price said...

Yes Andrew, and your concern is the ban on mentioning evolution, isn't it?

Sue Purkiss said...

I'd entirely missed all this, so thanks, John. The trouble is, in this age of instant communication, it's all too easy to read something, get fired up about it, and jump on the protest bandwagon - without taking time to look into the issue properly. I've done it myself. We're all becoming very quick to judge and take sides...

Andrew Preston said...

Susan..., no that is not my concern. In the primary context of the original post.., yours is ?

John Dougherty said...

So, what exactly is your concern, Andrew?

Katherine Langrish said...

Thanks for this post, John. It makes a lot of sense. Andrew, if a publisher hopes to sell a book worldwide, it won't want to rewrite it to suit the preferences of each individual country. That would come pretty expensive, and the expense would have to be passed on to the consumer, including home-grown consumers. I don't know if English children are as desperate to read about pigs and sausages as ALL that.

Andrew Preston said...

John, Your post reads to me like a bit of a minor rant,... how dare anyone criticise publiahers, with an amount of filler thrown in to suitably disguise that point.

Yes, Katherine, I'm very aware of the commercial argument. Indeed, that is part of why I said what I did..... pandering to markets.

John Dougherty said...

I see, Andrew. That tells me what your problem with me is, and why you've chosen to make sniping comments about my values. But it still doesn't go any way towards explaining what you think the actual issue is here, or what you think is being 'perpetrated'.

Perhaps you'd like to reread the post with a bit more consideration, and return to the conversation with some kind of substantive point? I genuinely would be interested to know what you think OUP and the other publishers who sell reading schemes internationally have actually done wrong. Unless you simply think that trying to make a profit is in some way immoral in and of itself?

And believe me, I'm not averse to criticising publishers when I think they have done something wrong. I just don't like it when anyone's falsely accused.

John Dougherty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Nick Green said...

Playing Satan's solicitor, I have to say I think it sad that any culture could be so put off by pigs. As I understand it, the religion forbids eating them, not looking at them or reading about them. How odd of God to stigmatise the pig. Is it the definition of hogwash?

John Dougherty said...

I doubt very much if an entire culture is put off by pigs. But we're all familiar with the idea of gatekeepers, who stand between the author and the readers. And when it comes to reading books, it just takes one significant gatekeeper – say, the Minister for Education or the chief educational supplier for the country – to put a spanner in the works.

And the same, of course, applies to witches, or dinosaurs, or dogs, or all those other things we're advised to avoid when writing reading scheme books. I really do think it's important that we remember that it's not just pigs.

Anne Booth said...

I thought this was really interesting and I think it makes a v good point. I've been told by one publisher (not OUP) to replace a hedgehog in one of my stories with another animal because they have found the American market just won't buy books with British hedgehogs in. This wasn't for religious reasons - there are no, to my knowledge, anti-hedgehog religions - but because they needed to sell my book overseas in order to fund its production. I felt v sad, as I love hedgehogs, but I could see that it is very difficult to sell books at this time, that the publisher needs to make money to pay the wages of the editors, designers etc who work so hard on my book, and that they are the ones taking the trouble to take my book to Bologna and doing their best to sell it. So I replaced the hedgehog and felt quite guilty about betraying such a quintessentially British mammal. Then I started writing for OUP and put a hedgehog in 'Lucy's Secret Reindeer', expecting, as they too sell overseas, that they would ask me to take it out - but they didn't. OUP even let me sneak in quite a long bit about looking after underweight hedgehogs in winter! So, to sum up, I agree with John. I don't for one minute think this discussion has been fair to OUP - publishers have to run a business and make hard decisions, they need to make money to employ people, and if they think they can't sell a book for a reading scheme with a particular animal in it they have every right to not sell it. This is not the same as bowing to censorship - I wouldn't insist I could sell meat at a vegetarian festival -you can't insist that a country buys books with pigs in them, any more than you can insist a person eats a particular food or wears a particular piece of clothing.

Penny Dolan said...

Well said, John.
I'd also add that, when writing a "series" story for 7-8yr olds, I was asked to change the bit where the central characters travelled by Underground into travel by bus. This was so that the title would be relate to more children's experience,including books sold abroad, as few cities have Undergrounds. Yes, I was mildly disgruntled, but I could understand why the publishers asked for the change. I hear that "pigs" item on R4 and thought "Oh no, not that old grumble again."

John Dougherty said...

Anne, I wish I'd known that 'hedgehog' story when writing this post!

And, Penny, the underground/bus thing makes perfect sense. I do think this whole thing is more likely to be about familiarity than offence. To children in most middle eastern countries, the pig isn't an animal you would keep for any reason - you can't eat it; and it's not good for anything else. So why would you have one on a farm? Having one in your reading book would just be confusing.

In the same way, I imagine a book in which somebody, with no explanation, eats a rat or a dog as if it's a perfectly normal thing to do, wouldn't make many sales here.

Nick Green said...

That really is thick of them. Have they not heard of Sonic? Hedgehogs are universally known and cool because of him.

Stroppy Author said...

I agree with your point about pigs, John. I've encountered all the taboo subjects, and even had a book banned in the US for including one of them (which was actually phenomenally good for sales elsewhere and PLR).

I think there are two related but separate issues. It really doesn't matter that much if you can't mention pigs, hedgehogs, sausages, wardrobes, or any of the other banned items. It really *does* matter if you can't talk about evolution, safe sexual practices, violence (not as entertainment) or a host of other things because books are sanitised for the American market.

Some of the restrictions are downright dangerous and British (actually, all) children are denied useful, true information and advice because of a minority of readers in the USA putting pressure on gate-keepers. For example, in a book about healthy living for teens, I'd like to include advice about sexual health but am not allowed to - as though suggesting someone has safe sex will encourage them to have sex when they hadn't thought of it. We can't discuss the injuries that might result from dangerous practices because it's too alarming or scary. But that makes any warning completely ineffectual and perpetuates the sanitised view of violence. 'Tis crazy. And definitely more iniquitous than swapping a sheep for a pig.

John Dougherty said...

Absolutely, Stroppy! I have no real objection to wide-ranging guidelines about what not to include in reading scheme books, because their purpose is to present an enjoyable story at a given reading level to help children to learn to read. As long as the books help the children to learn to read, and make them want to read, it's not a big deal whether the story contains pigs or witches or dinosaurs, or not.

But as you say, when books which are meant to be giving children information are censored because of somebody else's narrow views, that's a cause for concern. I'll join you on the barricades over that one!


John Dougherty said...

Oh, and Penny - I think you used the wrong term to describe your feelings when asked to remove the underground train from your story. "Disgruntled" is the word you use when you're asked to remove a pig. When asked to remove a train, you're "not chuffed".

Penny Dolan said...

Ha ha! Good joke. Or "As ever, John, you spotted my cunningly referenced word-play!"