Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Prejudice feeds on thoughtless writing

Saturday 17 September 2011 13:02

On the wall of my six-year-old son's room is a copy of an 'IoS' front page which shows him perched on a set of weighing scales. The picture was taken a couple of years ago to accompany a story about childhood obesity, although my son is not overweight, and he's very proud of it.

Actually, I've grown to hate it. Not because I feel bad about exploiting my own children (it was a favour done for the picture editor), but because, like many parents, I'm weary of "shock reports" in newspapers about overweight children, or overweight anybody else, for that matter. It's clearly an irritation, too, for reader Patsy Johnson from Maidstone, who didn't like the tone of last week's headline "Parents to get 'fat reports' after children are weighed" nor Janet Street-Porter's comments about overweight people in the same issue.

"I accept that there is a problem about child obesity," she writes,"but I object to the language 'fat reports' and the sneering manner of Ms Street-Porter, who talks about 'horribly overweight people waddling along wheeling pizzas, beer and white bread back to the car'. This kind of mockery does more harm than good and can be dangerous, driving young girls to anorexia."

In fairness, the news story was a fairly neutral account of a Department of Health initiative. But the phrase "fat report" was ours, I'm afraid. This, and Janet's comments, are not untypical of the kind of language journalists often use about obesity. How do they get away with it? Because, I believe, like the elderly, the obese are seen as "fair game" in a world increasingly hedged around with anti-discrimination laws. The end result is the kind of attitude we saw last week, where a party of women was refused entry to a Jersey nightclub because "fat people are bad for business".

Persuasive academic research shows obesity crusades can propel young people towards anorexia. Professor John Evans of the School of Sport and Exercise Sciences at Loughborough University will publish the findings in a book later this year. He says: "I've heard prominent spokesmen compare obese people to so-called freaks who used to appear in circuses. The message being passed down is that obese people can be legitimately laughed at, stigmatised and considered irresponsibly abnormal."

In any event, obesity may not be as bad as you think. Last month a major study from the US Centers for Disease Control, reported that those who are overweight had no higher risk dying of cancer or heart disease, and overall lived longer than those of "normal" weight.

Footnote: the Readers' Editor is 13 stone.

Corrections and clarifications

In the 27 July issue of The New Review, we described Cork-based poet Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin as "northern Irish". But at least we got the accents right.

Message Board: A word in your ear... advice for Gordon Brown

Barack Obama and the Prime Minister met for an hour last weekend. Readers revealed what they would have said to the PM:


If I were him I'd just tough it out – most of the things that have happened have not been his fault. My advice would be to go on the PR offensive rather than let Cameron keep punching him.

Neil McGowan

I wouldn't need an hour with Gordon Brown, I could tell him in 15 seconds: Resign, you talentless, neocon, yankee patsy. General election now!!


If Gordon Brown cannot win by-elections in his own backyard, why should he expect to win them in England? In these days of devolution, there is no demand across England for a Scots Prime Minister.

Lizzie Creek

Dear Gordon, 1. Bring some more heavyweights into the Cabinet. Being surrounded by little people makes you look little, too. 2. Sack treacherous Miliband. 3. Relax, even if they are all out to get you.


Rise above the flippant and corrosive carping of a media desperate to stir up trouble, and stick to your principles. Ordinary people admire your solemn steadfastness and are tired of soundbites and spin.

Joshua James

It doesn't matter whether Brown goes or not. The game is up for inept and dishonest New Labour whoever is leader. That an outfit so supportive of Israel should revive the BNP is almost comically tragic.


Brown must fight on until a credible replacement is found. Whatever his own shortcomings, he really cannot leave us to either of those neo-Blairites Cameron or Miliband.


There is no quick fix for Brown in these credit-crunched, recession-looming times. He should just be himself: earnest, hard-working, and eschewing embarrassing Blairish photo-ops and popularity-seeking.

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