Don't judge by off-the-cuff comment

MARTIN VAN BEYNEN
Last updated 11:29 05/07/2014

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Martin van Beynen

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OPINION: The renowned American journalist Seymour Hersh, 77, is at times a bit of a loose unit.

I know this because in the middle of a rather disjointed speech to a journalism conference recently he made a dismissive remark about Hilary Clinton, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

In the context of an attack on "nincompoops" in public office, he said, referring to the grown women above, that "little girls should not play with toy guns".

It earned him a surprised hiss or two from the audience of journalists and media managers but, apart from the odd tweet, I did not see any outraged media coverage. It could be that Hersh, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is given a little more slack than most public figures, but I expected the throwaway line to get more play than it did.

We live in very sensitive times and journalists are good at picking on the inappropriate or offensive quip or comment for an easy story.

One of the justifications is that gaffes or faux pas reveal the real person behind the public image and give us better grounds on which to assess someone's suitability for office or support.

Public figures rarely say what they really think for fear of the consequences and when they make a slip we pounce on them as though we have suddenly unmasked the genuine article.

British newspapers, particularly The Guardian, make a huge deal of gaffes and inappropriate language.

If Hone Harawira, of "white motherf....." fame was a British politician and broadcaster, or Rachel Smalley (heifers, lardarses) had been working in England, I am not sure an apology would have saved them.

Peter Wilby, a commentator in the New Statesman, recently analysed an edition of The Guardian and found the front page and then pages 3, 4, 5 and 7 all had stories about someone taking offence to some remark.

After wading through this morass of offence, readers reached the trivia of disasters, civil wars, famine and so on.

In the past couple of months the media have had a field day with:

Prince Charles comparing Putin to Hitler while in Canada.

Jeremy Clarkson apparently using the n word in an out-take for Top Gear.

Private emails to and from the English Premier League's chief executive, Richard Scudamore, revealing jokes about "female irrationality", a prince who "banged skinny, big-titted broads" and a reference to women as "gash".

Footballer Joey Barton comparing the alternatives to Ukip as a "group of ugly girls" on BBC question time.

Sometimes the story will be about the ludicrous over-reaction to a perceived indiscretion.

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Last month, for instance, the papers pilloried the BBC for sacking a Devon radio jock because he played a 1932 version of a song which unbeknown to him contained the n-word.

Woe betide, also, the commentator who, in the current climate, makes unflattering remarks about a woman's appearance.

One of the great recent storms in a teacup has been the reaction to a number of eminent opera critics having the cheek to suggest Irish mezzo soprano Tara Erraught was miscast as Octavian in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier because she was "stocky", "dumpy" and "a chubby bundle of puppy fat".

I don't have a serious problem with the media having fun with all this but I do wish everyone would get a life and harden up a bit.

Aren't there more important things to get worked up about?

I think we can all do with fewer stories about the great insult and trauma that a few words can inflict. Over-wrought reactions also have the unfortunate effect of stopping free discourse so that either everyone is too scared to say anything colourful or to say anything which might give any insight into their real thoughts.

In other words, people hide things. I am thankful to Seymour Hersh for showing me he can be a loose unit.

But the real danger in making a big fuss of the odd bigoted phrase or utterance is that it then unfairly defines the person responsible.

Scudamore, for example, has done a lot for women's football in England.

Hersh hardly needs any defence but he exposed the 1968 My Lai massacre in which hundreds of Vietnamese villagers were, murdered by American troops.

He helped reveal the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in 2004.

If Hersh's remark about "little girls" had been widely disseminated it would have completely overshadowed his other comments in the speech, such as:

"Our job as journalists is to protect all of us from the leadership."

"In a perfect world, a journalist wouldn't worry a bit about the consequences of what he writes."

"Government should be scared to death of the NSA spying revelations, not newspaper editors."

We are all more than an ill- advised, nervous, silly, off-the-cuff, comment would suggest, although we should be prepared to take the consequences.

- The Press

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