Fox (n): carnivore of genus vulpes; crafty person; scavenger; (vb) to confuse; -ed (adj): to be drunk.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Outrage (n): act of wanton cruelty or violence.

WE live in a time best described as outrageous, because if something happens which enough people express anger about that thing is bullied to the point of virtual suicide.

Public scandals have a certain timeline. They start with a few mentions, here and there, of things which provide more questions than answers, then a trickle of stories snowballs into a storm of revelations and finger-pointing before a baddie is found to act as the lightning rod for everyone's unhappiness.

Usually someone is convicted, dismissed or at the very least found guilty in the court of public opinion, and things die down as we all hope it doesn't happen again.

But now we have a new and paranoid element in the mix; the likelihood that a critical mass of people will be unhappy enough about the scandalous thing to stir themselves to stab a finger at a keyboard or telephone number pad in order to express it.

So the normal trickle-snowball-storm process now has a G-spot - and if tickled just right, the whole thing explodes like a nuclear bomb mushrooming out of control and out of all rhyme and reason as well.

This is not to say such public outrage is not justified at times. But it has got to the point where the outrage does not always take account of common sense, and everyone is so terrified about provoking such a reaction that in order to damp the whole thing down they do ridiculous and illogical things.

Russell Brand was sacked for making unfunny remarks about a former lover on a radio show no-one had paid any attention to. The News of the World was euthanised at a time when it was, ironically, the cleanest and best-behaved it had ever been. Jeremy Clarkson made the kind of joke about striking workers we all expected him to and the fuss was such that he, his employers, and the show on which he made it all had to grovel. And we seem to have a race row once a fortnight.

All of those scandals were about something which, of course, was wrong - but the fallout simply made no sense. No-one should be sacked for what ex-employees did years earlier; no joke, however ill-considered or unfunny, should cause wild-eyed, frothing anger. That kind of reaction is normally reserved for religious fundamentalists, not your average man-at-a-keyboard.

"Ah," you'll be saying, "but you journalists lead witch hunts all the time, don't you?" Well, we get accused of that, usually by people on the end of it. In truth such stories are largely a barrage of difficult questions asked of people who don't want to answer them. And when we set out on those escapades we are bound by the laws of the land, by fact-checking and consequences, by half a dozen bosses and lawyers who check our missiles before we launch them. No-one can edit public opinion, nor should they try, but in an age when it can very rapidly have devastating consequences perhaps we all ought to think twice.

A YouTube video or picture of someone doing something wrong might do the rounds, and perhaps it helps to catch a criminal but what if it means their innocent lookalike is hounded out of town, or thumped in the street? It's going to happen one day. Imagine what would happen if someone posted a picture of 'the real killer' in a high profile child murder case and used the wrong one?

When football manager Gary Speed committed suicide gossip was rife about the reason. The main rumour was he had received a knock on the door from a tabloid journalist who was writing an unflattering story, a speculation seen by thousands. Newspapers issued statements saying they were not investigating Speed in any way, but the belief persisted in some quarters. Yesterday after an inquest ruled he may have hanged himself unintentionally following a drunken row with his wife, Speed's family praised the media and his brother-in-law posted on Twitter: "So, Gary Speed wasn't gay, wasn't having an affair, and wasn't facing tabloid exposure. Nice work, Twitter. #RumourFail."

And, largely because of the degree of public outrage against bankers and the bonus culture, this week Stephen Hester at publicly-owned RBS had to forego some shares which had been agreed by the Government as the best way of ensuring he was rewarded only for success. In the same week his predecessor Fred Goodwin - the man responsible for the mess most people agree Mr Hester is doing a reasonable job of cleaning up - was stripped of his knighthood, three years after he resigned for his incompetence.

Common sense would tell us that a bank should be run as a bank, not a charity. Now it's owned by us we'd like the man in charge to be a big, successful banker who will turn a big old profit so we can get our money back, not a wannabe vicar doing it out of the kindness of his heart. Common sense tells us that we'd far rather Goodwin kept his meaningless knighthood and gave us back the £300,000 a year he took at early retirement; let's make that sucker work til he drops.

Common sense would also tell you that people commit suicide for lots of reasons, but rarely because someone asked them a question. Common sense says Jeremy Clarkson's a twit, that Russell Brand's never been that funny and that around 9m people quite enjoyed reading the News of the World, and if it had cleaned up its act that was a good thing.

On the other hand, public anger at the decision to prosecute a man for tweeting a joke about blowing up Robin Hood airport, which led tens of thousands to tweet the same and thus prove the law was an ass, was brilliant, inspiring, and quite right.

But too often the ease with which we can kick off simply means that the people who shout loudest and longest get their way. It's a form of national bullying, and while sometimes a little of that may be deserved it rarely pays much attention to what's sensible.

Common sense is never our first reaction to a scandal; it usually arrives only with hindsight, when it's less useful. It ought to teach us to think twice next time, and perhaps use the massive righteous power of public opinion to support those who deserve it, withdraw it from those who don't, and to confine ourselves to asking awkward questions of those who cross the line.

Outrageous idea, isn't it?

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