A rubbish leaflet

There has been an extraordinary incident in the news over the past week that involves all kinds of complex and convoluted issues.

The story was this. A junior council officer at Bradford City Council had the idea of creating and distributing a leaflet aimed at discouraging Muslim people in Bradford from littering their streets. The leaflet invoked the name of Allah to encourage the residents to stop littering. It also referred to various themes from the Quran such as “keep our place of prayer clean”, “respect creation and the environment” and “be a considerate neighbour”. These are all good ideas and few people would argue with their sentiments – so what, you might wonder, was wrong with this leaflet and its planned distribution ?

Well, it is probably fairly intuitive to most of us that you don’t use someone else’s religion, or its tenets, to beat them round the head. Bradford City Councillor John Robertshaw, Chairman of the snappily-titled “Social Care Overview and Scrutiny Committee”, appears to have been the one who, on discovering the existence of this leaflet, put a stop to it. His view was that “If these [leaflets] had gone out, the Council could have been charged with inciting racial hatred, suggesting that litter dropping is exclusive to, or more prevalent among, Muslims…… What next ? Leaflets to individually alienate our Christian, Hindu and Buddhist residents ?”.

Actually, I think that Councillor Robertshaw was harping on the wrong note here, although I do recognise that this was a politician’s sound-bite and probably not quite the place to go into a detailed examination of community engagement strategy.

The point is surely this. It is by no means wrong in principle to take steps to convey a message to a defined group of people. And, conveyed in the right way, it should not matter if that group is defined by religious, ethnic, age, geographic or any other criterion. But what is key, surely, is that proper thought is given as to how best to ensure that the message is received positively by the group in question and then acted upon appropriately.

To give you an example, I have seen a wonderful leaflet which was produced for Muslim people by a group, themselves Muslims, who were keen to convey similar ideas to those contained in the Bradford City Council leaflet. The difference was that, in this case, it was one Muslim speaking to another and so didn’t incur the charge of a person or organisation, external to the targeted group of people, being patronising and accusatory to the group.

It’s also a fact of human nature that people don’t like being told what to do, least of all by someone from outside their natural community. The art of communication is just that – an art. And it needs to be studied and considered if it is to achieve the desired effect.

So, although the case of the Bradford leaflet is, news-wise, all about lecturing in a discriminatory fashion to a particular group, let us all learn the lesson from it that, to engage a community in a particular issue, we need to think how best to engage that community from within and not, as one of my local authority officer friends observes as happening so often in local government (and, no doubt in all sorts of other organisations), “produce a leaflet – job done !”.

Leave a Reply