The Times, 5 May 2007


I can’t deny that I am easily pleased – freshly cut flowers, a new Diagnosis Murder tie-in novel, or Lincoln Burrows, shirtless, in Season 2 of Prison Break, can all leave me grinning for hours. But although my week has featured all of the above (I’m living the dream), nothing has made me laugh louder than a letter to the Times on May 1st. Anna Firth, the co-founder of Promoting Parenting (whatever that may be, other than alliteration), wrote to suggest that ‘violent and disturbing images’ be removed from the 6 O’clock News, lest unsupervised children be watching. I’m not sure what amuses me most – the fact that there is anyone alive who believes that children would be watching the news at the same time as The Simpsons is on? Or maybe the bit where adults should have to wait till ten o’clock at night to see the news in full, because some people can’t be bothered to supervise their children’s viewing habits? Hard to say.

What children should be watching on TV is a hard-fought battleground. There are those in the red corner, fighting to censor children’s viewing, who apparently now believe there to be no greater global evil than Natasha Kaplinsky. Meanwhile, this week’s surprise contender in the (Shropshire) Blue corner is the cheese industry, arguing that they have been censored unjustly, following a recent Ofcom decision to ban the advertising of cheese during children’s programmes. Its high fat and salt content render it ‘junk food’, so there must be no advertising during programmes such as Friends, for Brie or even a cheeky Camembert.

If Tony Blair found time this week to read a survey, published in this week’s The Grocer magazine, he must have been devastated. It’s no surprise that he’s finally ready to announce his resignation. After all, no-one goes into public life expecting one day to find that only 2% of senior people in the dairy industry thinks their Government is supportive of the cheese industry. And which of us could truly sleep at night once we’d discovered that 52% consider this Government to be actively ‘anti-cheese’?

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder - could 52% of cheesemongers be wrong? How can I have failed to notice state-sanctioned anti-cheese propaganda seeping into every home? And who, really, could oppose cheese when it’s such a broad church? A man might recoil from the meek, mild-mannered Ricotta, but then he would surely thrill to a hard-core Stilton, which stomps about the fridge like a teenage vandal, destroying the flavour of everything in reach. It is acceptable, certainly, to question the validity of the mild-cheese/fruit hybrid, particularly a Wensleydale with Cranberries, which is nine kinds of wrong. But that wouldn’t mean you didn’t love a perfectly-cooked halloumi, which offers nourishment and cleaner teeth, both at the same time. A well-matured Epoisses can make a grown woman salivate, weep, and whisper, ‘I smell dead people,’ like a synesthetic Haley Joel Osment in The Sixth Sense. Surely no-one could oppose all these contradictory things at once – it would be like opposing life, or thought, which the Government never does. Well, almost never.

Cheese advertising is, of course, slightly more complex than it first appears. Two years ago, Ofcom found that 90% of the cheese-based treats advertised during children’s TV were not Cheddar, Cheshire, or Red Leicester. They were processed cheese products, such as ‘cheese strings’, and the ominously vague ‘dippers.’ Now, I write as someone who loves cheese in the way that most women my age love babies, or occasionally kittens. I like cheese so much, in fact, that I don’t drink milk. To me, milk is just aborted cheese, an abomination before the eyes of Gouda. I spend at least an quarter of my waking hours thinking about food, and most of that time thinking favourably about cheese. And even I feel slightly nauseous when the word ‘cheese’ is placed immediately proximate to the word ‘strings’.

Surely Ofcom’s decision is a sign that the Government is pro-cheese, just anti-Cheez Whiz, which is roughly the same as being anti-everything bad in the world. No-one is ever going to build a barricade to defend the rights of ‘Primula - The only cheese you can squeeze’. Being in favour of the processed cheese slice is morally identical to being in favour of cutting down ponies with a scythe.

I hope the BBC continues to torment children with George Alagiah – they’re made of stern stuff these days. And I hope Ofcom learns to distinguish between dippers, and what I think of as Real Cheese (the paramilitary wing of dairy produce). I have a pregnant friend coming to dinner tomorrow night. Her husband has (politely) reminded me that unpasteurised cheese can damage a human foetus – that’s not a food with which to mess.