Daily Mail Corrects Melanie Phillips on “Winterval”

Journalist previously threatened blogger with libel action for making same correction

September 2011: In the Daily Mail, Melanie Phillips writes about the “onslaught” against Christians in Britain, observing that:

Thus Christmas has been renamed in various places ‘Winterval’.

Kevin Arscott of the Angry Mob blog picked her up on this, noting that:

No, Melanie, it has never been renamed Winterval. It didn’t happen, and it didn’t happen in one solitary council in Birmingham in 1997.

Whilst you eagerly await 2011’s roll call of terrible hacks, feel free to re-read (or read for the first time) and share my essay on Winterval.

He also brought this to her attention by email, and wrote a follow-up post based on her response. Phillips, who also railed against Winterval as the “censorship” of Christians, immediately made a libel threat:

Your blog post about me is highly defamatory and contains false allegations for which you would stand to pay me significant damages in a libel action. There are many things I could say to point out the gross misrepresentations, selective reporting and twisted distortions in what you have written. I will not do so, however, because you have shown gross abuse of trust in publishing on your blog private correspondence from me without my permission. 

November 2011: The Daily Mail adds a correction to Phillips’ column:

A previous version of this article stated that Christmas has been renamed in various places Winterval. Winterval was the collective name for a season of public events, both religious and secular, which took place in Birmingham in 1997 and 1998. We are happy to make clear that Winterval did not rename or replace Christmas.

A version of the correction has also appeared on the Mail’s corrections page, although it begins with a corporate “We” rather than using Phillips’ name and it gives the date of publication as having been 26 September: Phillips’ piece was published on-line the day before.

However, Bob Haywood, who wrote the first article on the subject of “Winterval” back in 1997, has left a statement on the Press Gazette website:

I’m all in favour of killing off urban myths – but Winterval isn’t one of them. I am the journalist who broke the Winterval tale in 1998 – and I’m proud of it. More importantly, it was entirely accurate. There has been an insidious attempt of late to undermine this story, presumably in the hope that those who know the truth are long since gone. Previously, I have remained silent. But now that even the Daily Mail is apologising for it, let’s have the truth. In the run-up to Christmas 1998, I was a staffer on the Sunday Mercury in Birmingham and we exclusively reported – as the splash – the fact that the aptly-named Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, was furious that Winterval had been adopted as the umbrella name for the city’s festive celebrations. Birmingham City Council moaned then – and has been moaning off and on ever since – that its dreadfully-uninspired slogan had been misrepresented. This from a local authority which ruled five years earlier that its Christmas lights must be called “festive lights”. I didn’t seek out Bishop Santer; his remarks were made in a newsletter sent to parishes throughout the diocese – and reported verbatim in the Sunday Mercury, along with comments from the city council. Other newspapers and journalists may since have taken liberties with my tale but I stand by the original. One final thought: if Birmingham City Council’s vastly-overpaid marketing department was so comfortable with the Winterval tag, why did it abandon the absurd concoction the following Christmas  – and every Christmas since?

Other commentators remain unconvinced:

No one is saying Winterval didn’t happen. They have  complained that it did not rename or replace Christmas. That is the Winterval Myth. From your comment, you seem to stand by a story which reported that a Bishop was angry at Winterval. That’s true, he was. But Santer was complaining that Christmas wasn’t being called Christmas any more, because of Winterval. That simply isn’t true, as the Winterval  posters that can be found on Wikipedia proves. Far from ‘moaning’ the Council are rigth WInterval was misrepresented and have made clear that:

there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas.

Phillips’ use of the Winterval  story was part of larger campaign by the Mail to whip up hysteria over the use of “BCE” and “CE” rather than “BC” and “AD” on part of the BBC website. That was a load of nonsense too, as I blogged here.

(H/T Stephen Baxter, and to comment on his blog by Andy Mabbett)