The “Baa Baa White Sheep” story was a wholesale fabrication, reporting events that never happened. Nonetheless, the story “got legs” (as journalists put it) and was widely reported, modified, and re-reported by the press, to the extent that it has gained almost the status of an urban myth, being reported of people and institutions different to those of the original story of 1986.
The original story reported a ban at Beevers Nursery, a privately run nursery school in Hackney. It was originally reported by Bill Akass, then a journalist at the Daily Star, in the 1986-02-15 edition under the headline “Now it’s Baa Baa Blank Sheep”. Akass had heard of a ban issued, by nursery school staff, on the singing of the nursery rhyme “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep”, on the grounds that it was racist. In his story, he wrote:
Staff at a nursery school in Hackney, London, claim that the traditional nursery rhyme is offensive to blacks. At first they wanted the 30 children aged between one and three — only two of whom are black — to sing Baa Baa White Sheep instead. But now it has been banned altogether at Beevers Nursery in De Beauvoir Road.
Leaders of left-wing Hackney council welcomed the ban last night. A spokesman said: ‘We consider playgroups and nurseries should be discouraged from singing the rhyme. It reinforces a derogatory and subservient use of the word “black” among our youngsters in their formative years. This is particularly important because the majority of children in our nurseries come from black and ethnic minority communities.’
—Bill Akass (1986-02-15). “Now it’s Baa Baa Blank Sheep”. Daily Star.
The nursery was run by the parents, rather than by Hackney council. But Akass had telephoned Hackney council for its reaction to his story, Martin Bostock, then the press officer for Hackney council, reported that he had considered the possibility of simply responding that “We don’t know what this nursery is doing, but whatever they’re doing it is up to them.”. However, council leader Tony Millwood, according to Bostock, refused this advice and wanted to take a more supportive stance on the alleged ban, and in conjunction with the press office drafted and issued a statement saying “that we supported what they’d done, although making it quite clear that it was not a council nursery and not a council ban”.
Three days later, in the Hackney Gazette, Tim Cooper took up Akass’ story. He went to Beevers Nursery and asked parents there what their reactions, in turn, were to the Hackney council statement, itself a reaction to the claim that Beevers had issued a ban.
Cooper’s story reported one of the nursery playleaders as saying “We’re run by parents and if they want us to stop singing it, we would. But there have been no complaints so far, through someone once suggested it could be racist.”. Cooper later stated that there had been no such ban, but that the statement issued by Millwood and Hackney council had given the story the impetus that it was then to run with:
I think they really shot themselves in the foot. I think they issued the statement because they, or the council leader at the time, believed that the ban was in force and tried to justify it. I think that they were wrong. There was no ban in the first place. By issuing the statement they virtuall created the story, which obviously snowballed from there.
—Tim Cooper, Hackney gazette
And snowball it did. The story was carried by the Sun in its 2nd February 1986 edition, under the headline “Lefties baa black sheep”, with the ban attributed directly to “Loony left-wing councillors”. The Sun’s version of events was subsequently carried by the 23rd February 1986 Sunday World. It was taken to the letters columns of the Hackney Gazette and the Ilford Recorder, and even reached the pages of Knitting International. Despite neither the journalists nor the letter-writers presenting any evidence for their assertions, only one paper, The Voice rejected the story in print, calling the story a deliberate attempt to discredit the council.