The only way is ethics? God forbid

By Max Goldbart, Monday 13 November 2017

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It is not a common occurrence, and it’s even rarer that it catches the eye of the media, but every so often a high-profile case arises in which a customer is refused a service because it conflicts in some way with the service provider’s religious, political or ethical beliefs.

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Plain brown paper isn’t always enough to hide some printers’ blushes

Last month, this happened in the print industry when a transgender businesswoman, Joanne Lockwood, was left “stunned” after being refused an order of business cards for her diversity consultancy from Southampton-based Afford A Print and its owner Nigel Williams. 

Lockwood advises firms on issues faced by transgender people in the workplace and she wanted business cards to promote her new consultancy. She met Williams at a networking event in September and he initially agreed to take on the work. However, he subsequently changed his mind stating in an email to Lockwood, as reported in The Sunday Times, that “the new model of diversity” was being used to marginalise Christians in the workplace. 

While it is fruitless to dwell on Williams’ exact motivations for declining (he also declined to comment for this feature), the incident was reminiscent of a number of other recent cases, including that of an Irish baker who refused to personalise a cake with the slogan ‘Support Gay Marriage’ and the Cornish husband and wife who wouldn’t allow a homosexual couple to stay at their B&B. Last year, the owners of the bakery that turned down the cake job lost an appeal to overturn their conviction for discrimination. 

“These cases are quite blatant and what I think will happen over time is that industries will find subtler ways of discriminating against them,” says Binna Kandola, senior partner and psychologist at leadership adviser Pearn Kandola. 

“With the baker they said we will bake you a cake but we will not bake you that [specific] cake because it conflicts with our values. 

“Whereas the woman [Joanne Lockwood] who did not receive the service didn’t want the person to be vilified, which actually I really admire, she wanted business cards printed for campaigning and he’s gone for the moral argument, he’s directly attacking the person, saying ‘I don’t like you and what you stand for’. I find this more personal.”

Kandola adds that larger corporations would tend to have policies that support the LGBTQ community in these instances, ensuring, for instance, that customers in same sex marriages are not discriminated against, but this can be a bit more difficult with SMEs where it is less likely that there’s a policy in place. 

More generally, others in the sector have certain lines they will not cross when it comes to taking on work, whether that be on the grounds of politics, religion or morality. 

“We work on the basis that if it is not porn, sexist, libellous or racist we will look at whatever people put before us,” says Craig Card, managing director of Hampshire-based O&R Printing and its sub-brand Lib Dem Image.

A printer by trade, Card joined the Liberal Party (which merged with the SDP in 1988 to form the Liberal Democrats) in the early 1980s and was commissioned by a number of local candidates in what was then a regional stronghold for the party, before rolling out nationally in 2000. 

Card’s political activism remains as strong as ever but he concedes that his politically driven sub-brand remains distinct and does not influence the work he takes on with O&R, the outfit that he runs with his wife. He even has a cheeky admission. 

“I have printed for the Conservative Party,” deadpans Card. 

“A lot of our work comes through agencies and they all know about my political work and it’s quite hilarious. They once said ‘We’ve got a job but we’re not sure whether or not you’ll want to do it – it’s printing clipboards for the Tories’. This was back in Maggie Thatcher’s day and I also did some work for independent candidates in 2007 and a little bit more for the Tories at the 2010 election.”

Other politically driven printers include Labour Print, a division of communications agency Public Impact, Vale Press’ printblue.co.uk sub-brand for the Conservatives and UKIP Local Print. 

Artistic merit or smut?

On the slightly raunchier side, outfits such as Card’s may draw the line under taking on porn or ‘eroticism’ in its various forms but Marc Carter, owner of publisher and design agency The English Group, believes that printers should consider jobs on artistic merit before immediately saying no. 

In 2015, Carter sought out a printer for award-winning erotic magazine The Quite Delightful Project (TQDP), which he describes as “a beautiful object”, settling on a printer that was comfortable enough due to the product being created and designed by women for women. 

“We have had more negative comment about our designing and printing entirely truthful reportage photography depicting the horrors of war and the excesses of the human condition than we ever did with TQDP,” Carter tells PrintWeek.

“There is work that we, as a design agency would certainly turn away on moral grounds, but this was always going to be something so much more than a ‘wank mag’.” 

Incidentally running by its own code of ethics, TQDP’s printer has in the past turned down jobs including a run of fox hunting promotion leaflets and brochures advertising incubation equipment for battery farmed hens. 

So it appears that the line between what is acceptable differs for all, regardless of religious or political affiliation, and it is up to the business in question to find ways to best communicate a desire to either take on or turn down work. 

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