Insight: Martha Payne showed how a savvy nine-year-old can change the world
READING Argyll and Bute Council’s statement, the one which explained why it had banned Martha Payne from taking photos of her own school lunch, you would have thought she was an undercover agent sent in by a foreign regime to undermine her Lochgilphead primary, the local authority, and the very fabric of society.
In fact, as the picture on her blog clearly demonstrates, she is a nine-year-old girl involved in an educational project which, in normal circumstances, would have seen her feted for her enthusiasm, enterprise and sense of civic responsibility.
Set up with the help of her father David six weeks ago, Never Seconds carries a photograph of that day’s culinary offering, with a ratings system which includes marks out of 10 for taste and healthiness, a note of how many mouthfuls it provides and a tally of the number of hairs found therein.
But, as it has gathered momentum (at the time of writing, it had had more than three million hits), it has become a platform for a debate on school dinners worldwide, with Martha asking pupils and teachers in other countries, including Germany, Israel and Canada, to send photographs of their offerings (schupfnudeln, falafel and Rocky Mountain bowl with grilled tofu respectively) for comparison (all of the others looked healthier and more appetising).
It wasn’t her fault that her photos of her dinners – slapped haphazardly on prison-style plates – prompted fierce criticism of the education authorities from her growing band of followers; nor that celebrity chefs Jamie Oliver and Nick Nairn were quick to endorse her contribution to the debate.
Indeed, far from bigging herself up or pushing a negative agenda, she decided to use her newfound celebrity to raise money for the Scottish charity Mary’s Meals, which provides one meal a day to pupils in schools in developing countries such as Malawi.
To a savvy PR, Martha clearly represented an opportunity; with the right handling, she could have been promoted as a shining example of the kind of pupil Argyll and Bute schools were capable of producing. She could have been used as the focal point of a campaign to promote best practice across the region, with the local authority promoting itself as a centre of excellence.
Instead, in a masterclass on how to turn a mildly embarrassing incident into global humiliation, the council opted to clamp down on her subversive activity. After a tabloid newspaper carried a story about her under the headline – Now Fire the Dinner Ladies –they decided to stop her taking photographs, seeing to it that she was summoned to the headteacher’s office to be told of the ruling.
Then, under pressure from supporters who learned of the decision when Martha signed off her blog, they issued a scorching 553-word statement which referred to her in terms better suited to an armed insurgent than a P4 pupil. “The council has directly avoided any criticism of anyone involved in the ‘Never Seconds’ blog for obvious reasons despite a strongly held view that the information presented in it misrepresented the options and choices available to pupils. However, this escalation means we had to act to protect staff from the distress and harm it was causing,” it fulminated.
By now, the twittersphere was going crazy. Martha Payne, Never Seconds and Argyll and Bute were all trending, as commentators – celebrity or otherwise – expressed their outrage at the disproportionate response and their support for the girl in the eye of the storm.
When Scottish education secretary Mike Russell confirmed he had emailed the Argyll and Bute’s chief executive Sally Loudon asking for the decision to be reversed, it was clear the game was up.
Shortly after 1pm – a matter of hours after the first statement – the council leader Roddy McCuish issued a second, which said the local authority had reconsidered and the ban was being lifted. But the damage to its reputation had already been done. With donations to Mary’s Meals now flooding in, it looked petty and mean-minded.
That its statement referred to its sweets as “deserts”, whereas on Martha’s blog the word was spelled correctly only added to the sense it was now an international laughing stock.
So how did the apparatchiks get it so badly wrong? Most commentators believe that, while Martha had an innate understanding of the power of social media, those at the helm of Argyll and Bute Council completely underestimated its significance.
“Martha handed the council the opportunity to engage with the rest of the world and perhaps to make her school and the schools in Argyll and Bute leaders in good practice. Instead, they have behaved like bullies,” says Stephen Jardine, director of Taste Communications, a food PR firm. “The whole situation has been led by Martha, the council has been playing catch-up every step of the way. Every time they have had a chance to do the right thing, they’ve done the wrong thing.”
It didn’t help, perhaps, that, where PR is concerned, Argyll and Bute hasn’t had its troubles to seek. Earlier this year, the council lost three press officers, including the head of communications, in a row over the alleged use of “spy accounts” – fake Facebook accounts which would, theoretically, allow representatives of local authorities to join campaign groups and take part in discussions under a false identity.
Even so, it is hard to understand how a local authority allowed itself to be bested by a nine-year-old. “It’s incredibly short-sighted to think you can get away with something like this in this day and age,” says Andrew Burnett, head of social media at Yard Digital. “To try to block or censor anything results in such a massive backlash – the [thing you want to censor] just spreads like wildfire.”
The charming thing about Never Seconds – and probably the mainstay of its appeal – is the fact that it’s not precocious. Although Martha has support from her father, who manages a smallholding, the quirkiness of some of the views expressed convince the reader they’re all her own. When discussing chicken fajita, for example, she says: “I’d really like to know where the chicken comes from so I am going to write to the lady in charge to ask. I know it comes from a hen but I’d like to know where the hen lived.”
Her honesty too is disarming. Although she can be critical, she’s not just trumpeting the healthy option like some Stepford child. Sometimes she chooses the unhealthy option and convinces herself it’s the healthy one.
But she is genuinely interested in food; opting for gammon steak early on, she says: “We don’t cure pork at home so I don’t think I’ve tasted it before,” and when she receives a photograph from Japan of sushi made to look like penguins, she sets about making it for herself.
No wonder those who have campaigned relentlessly for an improvement in school dinners immediately recognised her as a potential ally. While Argyll and Bute pondered how to silence her, Oliver, who famously succeeded in excising Turkey Twizzlers from English primaries, and Nairn capitalised on the way she was reinvigorating the debate about what our children eat at lunchtime.
“Adults were shocked by the pictures of ice lollies and hot dogs and incinerated pizzas and burgers,” says Jardine. “We can’t allow food to be served up like that – as you would expect it to be served in prison or on a cheap airline meal. Those within the sector defend these meals, saying they meet nutritional guidelines, but even if they do, food has got to be attractive if you want children to eat it and no thought at all has gone into its presentation. I wouldn’t eat that and I challenge the chief executive of Argyll and Bute – if she’s happy with that why doesn’t she go to Martha’s school and eat it for a week.”
What Nairn wants is for Scotland to have a better relationship with food. “We are blessed with the world’s greatest larder – we have the most wonderful produce and one of the worst diets in the world. That’s not right, we have to change that,” he says.
Convinced Martha had the power to sway public opinion, the chef made her guest of honour at a preplanned summit on school dinners, involving council officials, head teachers, school meal providers and food campaigners. In an attempt to demonstrate what could be achieved, he challenged them all to make a dish for the cost of a school meal and got Martha to choose the best one.
It was, in a roundabout way, her role in the summit that led to the ban because it was the Daily Record’s story about it – alongside a photo of Nairn and Martha shoogling a flaming pan – that carried the offending headline. But ironically, the furore the ensuing PR disaster created has given the campaign a shot in the arm, creating a ground swell of good will towards his objectives.
“I’ve learned over the years that the way to change things is not to engage with politicians and say, ‘come on guys, you can do better,’ because they’ll just pat you on the back and say ‘yes, of course, you’re fantasic – now on you go,’” says Nairn. “The way to change things is to change public opinion, to get grassroots support, people on the ground behind you and that’s what’s happened here.
“The people have said ‘enough, this is not on’. But issues this has raised are bigger than that – they are issues about how we value our children, how we communicate with them, how our education and our local authorities deal with schools and how important they feel the provision of food education and the provision of school meals is.”
Trying to ride the wave of support, the six most committed of the summit attendees will get together soon to come up with a strategy. Although no decisions have yet been taken, Nairn is known to be in favour of an initiative similar to Active Scotland – the anti-obesity programme which has seen an increase in the number of PE teachers – except this time for school food.
Mary’s Meals, too, has benefited from the public relations cock-up; donations now stand at more than £64,000 – more than enough to build a kitchen shelter, Martha’s original goal – and feed hungry children for a whole school year.
Apparently unfazed by a day that would have left many twice her age a nervous wreck, Martha herself is back blogging, her latest entry attracting more than 270 comments within a couple of hours. Since her story has been picked up by the Drudge Report and Gizmodo, it is not impossible to imagine her appearing on Good Morning America. What’s next? Martha, The Movie?
As for Argyll and Bute Council, one can only imagine it is licking its wounds. As a result of Friday’s turnaround, it is now committed to holding its own summit of catering staff, pupils, councillors and council officials in order to find “a united way forward”.
But it will take it a very long time to live down the humiliation of the past few days. One can only hope that being the butt of so many Twitter jokes (“the last time Argyll and Bute got this much publicity was when Mull of Kintyre was in the charts”) has taught it a lesson – and not only the correct spelling of “dessert”.
What they should have gleaned from this fiasco is the democratising power of Twitter and the futility of trying to close down debate in a digital age. With the weight of social media behind her, it seems, a nine-year-old girl has the potential to change the world.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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