Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Daily Mail finally admits it was wrong about Winterval

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A poster for Birmingham's 1998 Winterval
promotion (note the word "Christmas" at the top)
It has become an annual tradition, almost as old as Christmas itself (okay, maybe I exaggerate slightly), for the tabloid press to run stories claiming that someone somewhere has "banned" Christmas in the name of political correctness, out of fear of "offending" Muslims, or atheists, or any other group that could not possibly bear to witness an end-of-year celebration rooted in the Christian faith.

Like all good traditions, the banning of Christmas required a founding myth, and the tabloids found that in "Winterval", a campaign that Birmingham City Council ran in 1997 and 1998 to attract visitors to the city centre. In the tabloid narrative, Birmingham had replaced Christmas with the politically-correct, sanitised "Winterval", excising Christianity (which of course in this view underpins "British culture" itself) from the seasonal celebrations in England's second city. The only obstacles for this interpretation were the facts – as Oliver Burkeman highlighted in the Guardian in 2006, "Winterval" was nothing more than a promotional campaign, running from November to January (so both before and after Christmas), and Christmas-related events and decorations continued as normal in Birmingham alongside the campaign. As someone at the council told Burkeman:
"We get this every year. It just depends how many rogue journalists you get in any given year. We tell them it's bollocks, but it doesn't seem to make much difference."
This year the Daily Mail got things started nice and early, with Melanie Phillips wheeling the myth out on 26 September, before getting into an angry email exchange with the blogger Kevin Arscott over the issue. However, in its corrections column, which it has been featuring more prominently following a pledge by editor Paul Dacre before the Leveson Inquiry into press standards, the paper has today printed a surprising clarification of this latest Winterval reference:
"We stated in an article on 26 September that Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval.

Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998.

We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas."
This is a specific correction for 26 September, so it is perhaps too much of a stretch to view it as a collective correction for the countless occasions on which the Mail has repeated the Winterval/War on Christmas myth, but it will certainly be interesting to see whether it appears in the paper again. It's actually pretty difficult to imagine a world in which the Daily Mail doesn't refer to Winterval (just do a search for the word on their website), so I'm not holding my breath.

Update: Just as an interesting addendum, here's Mike Chubb, former head of events at Birmingham council and the man who devised "Winterval", explaining the whole thing back in 2008. (If only some journalists had read it then.)
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