Terence Blacker: Don't sneer if a Big Mac encourages reading

Friday 13 January 2012 11:00

At moments when they are about to deliver yet another item of miserable news, Government ministers tend to intone the now-familiar mantra that we are all facing "tough decisions". It has become a verbal tic, rather like the use of "Inshalla" in Arabic countries.

Yet the real tough choices are not for Tories – toughness is part of their marketing package, after all – but for decent, good-hearted liberals living in difficult times.

Here, for example, is a perfect moral conundrum. A blow in favour of books for children has been struck, supported by the National Trust for Literacy and involving the former children's laureate Michael Morpurgo. On the other hand, the campaign involves a deal between McDonald's and a Murdoch publishing company, and, if successful, could well encourage unhealthy eating and childhood obesity.

It is a straightforward moral choice. The McDonald's chain is aggressively marketing its £2.20 Happy Meals by offering free books, nine million of them, as incentives. In the past, the company has been in trouble for encouraging children to pester their parents by offering toys with its burgers or nuggets. Last year, Happy Meals were banned by a court in Santa Clara County in California in order "to prevent restaurants from preying on children's love of toys to peddle high calories, high fat, high sodium kids' meals."

Now, cunningly, McDonald's has changed the bait to books. It is cynical, the Campaign Director of the Children's Food Campaign has said, a touch desperately. It should not be the role of a fast-food chain to encourage literacy.

Yet cynicism, of course, is what happens in a market-led society. The National Literary Trust was quite right to take a deep breath, hold its nose and support the initiative. Having revealed last month that one in three children does not have a single book at home, the organisation knows better than most that now is not time for squeamishness.

Local councils are closing libraries. The minister responsible, Ed Vaizey, is being utterly feeble. Bookshops are losing their place on the High Street. It is children in relatively deprived areas who are paying the highest price, slipping into a world in which the imagination never extends beyond a computer game.

Where are these readers most likely to be found? Scoffing Happy Meals, of course. If a hard-eyed corporation cleverly exploits the fact that children are being deprived of all that books and stories offer, then to oppose it, from a position of privilege, is hypocritical and snobbish.

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