As a former resident of Argyll and Bute, I was shocked to discover today that its council has become embroiled in controversy for having suppressed the creative writings of a nine-year old girl.
A young girl writing under the pseudonym VEG has for the previous few months maintained a colourful and rather entertaining blog at Never Seconds, in which she describes and rates school meals, complete with photographs. So successful has this blog been that it has received over 2 million hits (more than A Scottish Liberal has achieved in three years) and facilitated some rather interesting conversations on the merits of school food.
VEG has her own style of writing, an obvious sense of humour and an even more evident ability to write. Speaking as a professional photographer I must admit that her compositional sense, as demonstrated in the pictures she uses in her blog, is pretty good too. In short, this young lady is talented, funny, creative, passionate and uses her energies to create something as refreshing as Never Seconds - something for which, you would think, she would be praised and her talents encouraged. The fact that the blog was also used to raise significant amounts of money for charities is another reason VEG's efforts should be recognised.
Today, unfortunately, her dad revealed in her blog that the council (tellingly not the school) has taken a decision to ban the girl's photography and effectively silence her opinions. I can see no reason why they should want to do this. As a professional photographer and a blogger I appreciate that there may be concerns in respect to confidentiality, but none of the photographs ever included anything other than the food itself and her writing, while amusing in its own way, was far from offensive. So why the need for the mean-spirited, authoritarian and unnecessarily nasty clampdown on the innocent activities of a 9 year old?
If the council had concerns about the use of photography in a school, all it has to do is telephone the school and request that teaching staff supervise or oversee the photography to ensure all pictures taken are appropriate. It seems the school was quite happy to support the girl, which makes the council's actions all the more surprising.
Instead of taking rational steps to satisfy itself that everything was above board, the council appears to have been quick to act in a heavy-handed way and will no doubt have caused unnecessary and avoidable upset on the part of the young girl and her family. I don't take too well to authoritarian types trying to bar me from taking photographs in public places or when others try to silence my opinions or challenge my independent views. How much more hurtful it would be for a nine year old to be taken out of her class during a maths lesson, to be brought before the Head Teacher and told categorically that her photography has been banned I can only imagine.
I'd take a guess that it's pretty dehumanising to be treated in that way.
Clearly it is impossible for her to continue blogging about food in the way she has without photographs and so the council have essentially suppressed this young girl's self-expression. No doubt they've also contributed to a loss of innocence and dented her faith in the goodness of humanity. Whichever way you look at this situation Argyll and Bute Council comes out of it with little credit intact. The best thing that can be said is that their behaviour is ill-considered and ultra-cautious but to many it will undoubtedly look like bullying. I have no doubt that it will feel like that to VEG and her family.
I hope that she does not allow this incident to undermine her self-confidence or to stem her creative talents. She deserves better than the council's knee-jerk authoritarianism; in fact, she is better than it. It would be a travesty if this was to negatively affect her desire or willingness to continue to write, to entertain or to further her photographic interests.
I also hope that the council reverses its opinion, offers an apology to the young girl and her family and allows her the freedom to continue blogging. It gives both herself and many others so much pleasure. I have written to the council expressing my outrage at their illiberalism and have urged them to make such an apology. I would recommend others to do the same: please consider e-mailing the council your views at email@example.com
I'd also hope that some of you would offer some support to VEG, by commenting on her blog.
It is right that this kind of authoritarianism should be challenged, especially when the victim of such nastiness is a 9 year-old girl writing about something as innocent as school meals. I believe in the need to create a liberal society - a need that is plainly greater than even I imagined given the actions of this council.
Yesterday on twitter, Americans were having a bit of fun describing liberalism in four words (#Liberalismin4Words). I'm not too strong with creating definitions, but I can think of four words to describe illiberalism: Argyll and Bute Council.
No doubt whoever manages the council's twitter account will have a few tweets to respond to in the morning. I suspect they will be without exception unsupportive and rightly so. There should be no place in modern Scottish society for this kind of conduct by councils and I will also be pressing Mike Russell MSP (Cabinet Secretary for Education) to have a few words with Argyll and Bute Council to ensure that such indefensible actions are never again taken against school pupils doing little other than making positive use of their talents.
I am, frankly, appalled by the council's conduct. You don't even have to be a liberal to find this kind of thing offensive, just a human being of which this young girl is one. It's a great shame that Argyll and Bute Council didn't consider the human costs of their unnecessarily legalistic actions before embarking on them.
The final word goes to Stuart from the excellent Wings over Scotland blog: "isn't it nice that a wee girl has managed to unprecedentedly unite - so far as we've seen - the entire world of Scottish politics." Indeed it is and quite a remarkable achievement, demonstrating the enormous impact she has had simply through being herself. Don't give up on the blogging, VEG!
Since writing this, I have discovered that Argyll and Bute Council has some quite serious "previous". In February it was revealed that the council's media manager, Jo Smith, had been setting up online "spy" accounts with the sole purpose of monitoring those who were critical of the council. (See The Herald for more). Ms Smith announced the setting up of these accounts to a conference on the use of social media, apparently oblivious to the outrage she would cause by the admission of such unprofessional and unethical behaviour.
Clearly this is a council either unwilling or unable to learn from previous mistakes. The fact that there clearly exists an institutional paranoia towards dissenting voices is quite unnerving.