It's a good job Tessa Jowell isn't paid to come up with advertising slogans, because yesterday she delivered an all-time clunker. Speaking to a conference of advertising executives, the minister ruled out the prospect of placing warnings on junk food or banning television advertisements for food during children's programming, urging her audience to promote "everything in moderation". She demanded they used their undoubted creative powers to encourage consumers to eat a balanced diet. Run that by me again - everything in moderation? We all know that politicians tend not to inhabit the same world as you or I, but the sheer naivety of Ms Jowell's remarks is breathtaking.
Faced with a nation of fatties, the Prime Minister has ordered reviews, white papers, initiatives and goodness knows what else. He wants the message to come across loud and clear - we must change our evil ways, cut out the carbs, get off the sofa and take more exercise. Primarily, of course, because the National Health Service, faced with the crippling expense of an ageing population, now has a second war to cope with - the heart disease and related illness caused by a nation where one-in-five men and one-in-four women are officially fat. Not to mention the 16 per cent of our children aged between two and 16 who are chronically overweight.
But you don't need to look very far to see that Britain is not a nation where people are the slightest bit interested in moderation. Sensible behaviour is not only seen as weird, it is simply not part of our national culture. From pop music to art to sport to television, what succeeds is excess. At Tate Britain yesterday, a new exhibition opened by three of our hottest artists: Damien Hirst, Angus Fairhurst and Sarah Lucas. It stars a six-legged cow in formaldehyde and a figure of Christ on the Cross made of cigarettes. Turn on the television, or take a look at the covers of any number of gossip magazines, and it is the antics of a woman called Jordan with an XXXL bust that has gripped the public's attention. The Darkness, hardly a bunch of tasteful shrinking violets in silver leather jumpsuits, win all the top music awards. And look at how we behave in public - binge-drinking has reached frightening levels and ecstasy is down to a £1 a pill in some of our cities.
Funnily enough, not even broadcasters believe in moderation - as they struggle for ratings, each trend, be it reality programming or cookery shows, is beamed at us from every conceivable channel every day of the week until they move on to the next Big Thing. We are the country that tuned in to watch the ludicrous Gender Swap the other week, where thousands of pounds was spent turning Carol Smillie into a fat, middle-aged businessman, complete with padded groin area.
Nowhere is our addiction to excess more apparent than in the area of eating. For every Briton who is obese, another three are on a diet. Do you know anyone who eats normally these days? I can't remember the last time I sat in a restaurant or café with friends and people ordered what was on the menu. Everyone is "holding" the croutons, forgoing the potatoes, adding green salads on the side and eating cheese with no crackers. On the train the other day, no one in the restaurant car ate a potato with their meal, but obviously the Atkins diet hasn't filtered through to the top levels of GNER, who ruthlessly ply passengers with biscuits, shortbread and chips at every opportunity. So the idea that as a nation, encouraged by advertisers (who are going to take Ms Jowell's words to heart and morph into caring souls), we start to eat sensibly and "in moderation" is doomed. What is so wrong about placing a message on a bag of crisps that tells us the contents will make us fat? If cigarettes kill you, so do blood vessels clogged with fat, and a heart weakened by cholesterol will give out before long. And don't tell me drinking colas is good for your teeth.
The Food Standards Agency has been conducting a review of food advertising to children, but Ms Jowell's remarks pre-empt their recommendations. It has already been acknowledged that advertising does have a huge impact on what children eat. Last autumn, a Commons select committee forced the chairman of one advertising agency to apologise for encouraging children to pester their parents into buying Wotsits. But the advertising world is desperate to shore up their position and has been lobbying the Government saying that in Sweden, where advertisements aimed at children are banned, there has been a decline in the quality of programming for the young.
All this is utter tosh, but Miss Jowell seems to have swallowed it, claiming that children's advertising "pays for children's programming". Fact - that is completely untrue. Broadcasters, as part of their franchise agreements, have to produce a pre-set quota of children's programming, along with news, education and religious programming. What she is talking about is the channels completely devoted to children's cartoons and so on, which many people would argue are commercial enterprises outside her concern.
Let's be perfectly clear: ads influence children, especially ads featuring sporting stars such as David Beckham and Gary Lineker, both of whom are parents who feel no anxiety whatsoever about accepting huge sums of money to encourage the nation's young to consume junk food. If these ads were banned from terrestrial television during the hours of children's programming, output would not suffer one bit. There is more than enough advertising during the rest of the day to pay for these relatively low-cost hours.
Recently Tesco told the Health Select Committee that it has no intention of encouraging healthier eating by removing sweets from its prime position by the checkouts. Like advertisers, it will fight tooth and nail not to see its income diminished by changes to our excessive eating habits.
So far the Government has not demonstrated that is has a coherent policy to deal with obesity. Distributing 1.3 million copies of a free magazine called Your Life, with eating advice from Miss Dynamite and Chris Eubank, smacks of desperation. John Reid, the Secretary of State for Health, has announced a white paper in the summer dealing with food labelling and the possibility of banning smoking in public places. Ms Jowell's department is publishing an Action Plan on sport in schools next month, and Ofcom is reviewing the Code relating to food and drink advertising on television by Easter.
Last week, the former NatWest chairman Derek Wanless produced his report on improving public health, commissioned by the Treasury. A tax on junk food was one idea floated, along with health messages that would reach those with poor literacy. But what does all this add up to? Leaving the ball in our court, to pick up or discard free magazines, to tune in to or ignore health messages in newspapers and on television, isn't the solution. We are addicted to excess. And that's why there should be tough measures to deal with what is undoubtedly a crisis.
A compulsory hour of PE every day in schools. A tax on junk food. Health warnings on packaging of some products. A ban on television advertisements for food during children's programming on ITV, Five and Channel4. Tax credits for people who eat properly and don't smoke. You know it makes sense, Tessa, just take a deep breath and get on with it.Reuse content