Tuesday 2 October 2007

No jokes about rocks

Why does anyone ever complain about anything in the media? A few may sense the distant jangle of a sure-fire, jackpot libel payout, but there are plenty of bankrupts and convicted perjurers to attest that this is a strategy fraught with risk.

Like all PR practitioners, I spent a fair chunk of my career trying to persuade angry clients to rise above it. “Hardly anyone will have read it. It’s tomorrow’s chip wrapper.” (It’s not any more, thanks to the Elfin Safety fanatics, but it still sounds more poetic than “already in the recycling bin”.) “They’ll end up reprinting the story to correct it, and it will get far more attention that way. Papers hate admitting they got it wrong. Much better if I have a quiet word with them and they make a note on the file so it never gets repeated. That way, they’ll end up thinking they owe us a favour.”

Most times, it worked. Sometimes it didn’t, and you’d see a note buried away in a corner of page 74. “In our profile of Sir Richard Buggins, chief executive of Gubbins plc, on pages 42-43 on September 26th, we did not intend to imply that he was in the habit of beating his wife. We regret that some readers may have misinterpreted the article in this way, and are happy to confirm that Sir Richard has never laid a finger on Lady Buggins except for approved matrimonial purposes, duly sanctioned by both Church and State.”

And for the rest of his life, whenever two people are gathered together and the name of Buggins crops up, one will wink at the other and lean forward confidentially to say, “Ah, you mean the wife-beater.”

These reflections were inspired by last week’s furore about Ant and Dec. I realised that I was eminently qualified to become a High Court judge when my first reaction to reading about them was to ask “Who are Ant and Dec?” I have never knowingly seen them on the box, and am amazed to learn that they are among the medium’s highest-paid stars. I can’t even begin to imagine why, but I’ll take the showbiz columnists’ word for it that they are “much-loved”.

Or at any rate they were, until they cracked their very lame “joke” about Northern Rock. Which would have passed me by completely if some people had not complained about it, leading it be re-shown on the local news and described frame-by-frame in every national newspaper.

If they turned up on Tyneside tomorrow, one suspects that they might be greeted by a lynch mob rather than a crowd of autograph hunters. It’s all a bit like the McCanns. One minute they’re a tragic (if possibly ever so slightly careless) couple which the nation had taken to its collective heart. The next minute we knew all along that they were a pair of wrong uns and were swamping phone-ins and websites with vitriol. Until we learned that the alleged DNA evidence was actually wafer thin, and began to suspect that the Portuguese police probably just named them as suspects in the hope that they would clear off and stop their media circus blighting what was left of the local tourist trade.

I daren’t take a view in this column whether Ant and Dec or the McCanns are heroes or villains. Not because I’m worried about complaints, but because I have to file this the day before publication, and who knows where public opinion might have shifted in the space of 24 hours. I hope that Gordon Brown bears this fickleness in mind when he is contemplating his massive opinion poll advantage and gnawing down what is left of his nails as he ponders whether to call an election. His lead may look rock solid now, but we all know … No, no jokes about rocks. Just look where they can get you.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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