For some non-Covid news, and as a bit of recent political history, I’ve been released more than 100 pages of internal press office communications relating to the Home Office’s fried chicken box saga.
You may remember back in heady 2019 that there was an uproar after the government provided takeaway boxes with anti-knife crime messages to chicken shops around the country.
The campaign faced an immediate backlash, with critics questioning why fried chicken shops — stereotypically associated with young black communities — were being targeted by the Home Office for this campaign against knife crime.
The emails I’ve been released show that privately, officials admitted that the outcry risked angering the communities the campaign was trying to reach out to.
A briefing prepared by a Home Office official highlighted that they were “unsure what could be done publicly” to rebuff the criticism, and that the campaign’s focus on chicken boxes had created a perception that the campaign had “publicised racist stereotypes”.
“This theme of institutional racism and an out of touch approach that demonises communities will potentially enrage many of the communities we are trying to build trust with,” the official said.
Instead of the Home Office considering the criticism, it appeared to double down, rather than exploring what had gone wrong with the messaging, with many emails flying in the wake of @DavidLammy tweeting concerns about the campaign.
The department’s press team faced the task of finding voices to support the department’s position as outrage exploded across social media by "bashing the phones".
Other emails complained that centre-right publications such as the Mail and Telegraph “have written up stories about the criticism, and while we have provided our background lines, that they are not entirely represented in the pieces”.
Despite initially being the public face of the policy, Kit Malthouse, then minister of State for Crime and Policing, was shielded from media contact.
“Given the circumstances today, we are planning to decline all bids that we have received for the Policing Minister to speak on the #knifefree chicken boxes”, the emails state, with a staffer agreeing with the decision with a one word response, “decline”.
A bid from #GoodMorningBritain was refused on the grounds that it would likely “see the story run for a second consecutive day, with coverage again focussed on the criticisms rather than addressing the serious messages the campaign is trying to convey.”
Among discussions of how to handle the issue, one damage-limitation proposal was to expand messaging to cover all fast food sites.
One staffer said that “I think we should call it chicken shops where we can, because we announced it as chicken shops, and if we switch to calling it fast food outlets it looks like we are shying away and we believe there is some truth in what people are saying.”
Another solution suggested was asking if Vice News would tweet in support of the Home Office’s policy, since covered a previous version of the #KnifeFree project.
Staff from Home Secretary Priti Patel’s office complained about being side swiped by the campaign.
“Just to flag, the HS (Home Secretary) is concerned about the chicken box campaign. I think the main issue is she didn’t feel properly signed on what was planned”. Another email complained that that chicken box stuff wasn’t flagged to her team as “a national push”.
The debacle raised sufficient concerns that press office staff appeared to check whether there were any chicken shops along the route in Peckham Ms Patel would be taking on a patrol with the Met Police later that week, to avoid a ‘gotcha’ photograph opportunity.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The #knifefree campaign was one element of a previous strategy to steer young people away from serious violence. Activity in fast food outlets was supported by evidence that gangs offer fast food to children to lure them into dealing drugs.”
This took the Home Office a year and an ICO complaint to release, as part of ongoing issues with timely transparency, worsened by the pandemic.
With thanks to @imosebba for help with the thread!

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