Today of all days, be thankful you’re not Toby Young. If you’re unaware of the guy, he;s just been appointed to the board of a higher education watchdog. As you can see from stories such as this, it’s not a universally popular move.
Part of this is due to his politics. He is a self-declared Conservative and the incumbent party of government always gets it in the neck. Also because he was allegedly viciously critical of state educated kids in this Spectator piece a few years back. He’s added a final paragraph at some point which kind of digs him in further; if you have to explain something wasn’t offensive, it probably was.
Essentially, you can’t disown something once you’ve said it. A provocative journalist like Young will understand this.
So what if you made an unhelpful media comment?
The problem is that some of us who’ve been around in the 1960s and previously might have said all sorts of things, whether in the form of a media comment or otherwise, over a lengthy-ish period of time. So, what do we do about them?
The first thing is to check them at the time. If someone has genuinely quoted you out of context, make the point, politely. However, make sure it really is out of context; wishing you hadn’t said something does not make it out of context at all.
For example, when the foreign secretary said his comments about whether a British aid worker was on holiday or training journalists were “taken out of context” when doing a bit of wriggling before Christmas, it was wrong – the whole interview is available and the context is clear. “Out of context” does happen but not that often. I’ve done it myself but only for humorous effect; many years ago Lord Alan Sugar had an issue in which people were complaining that his Amstrad computers were overheating. He denied this and came out with the quote: “We don’t need fans, it’s all rubbish, but if people want them, we’ll put them in.” Then he bought the football team Tottenham Hotspur, so the magazine on which I was working at the time resurrected the quote – deliberately and in a humorous section, so nobody thought he was actually talking about Spurs fans. It was out of context but on that occasion harmless fun.
So, is something out of context or not?
Second, allow yourself to change your mind. Just say so. Nobody should mind as long as you don’t do it all the time about things you said only last week.
Third, allow yourself a screw-up or two. Last year, Prue Leith accidentally gave away the winner of the Great British Bake-Off on Twitter (she was overseas, got her timings mixed up and thought the episode had been broadcast). Her response when questioned was “I f***ed up”. It was unfortunate but she didn’t wriggle, she faced it head on.
By now we’re all aware of how quotes can follow us around so my final thought is to suggest drafting something and then leaving it for a while. Does that thing really need to be said, even on Twitter? What’s your objective, and would it be better served by a polite rephrase?
That last point might have cost Donald Trump his presidency if he’d heeded it during his campaign, so let’s not pretend every rule applies everywhere. Mostly, though, it pays to be aware that everything you say in public may be repeated and scrutinised just when you don’t want it to be. Be prepared, have a response and remember, they were your words so you must have meant them at the time!
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