Terry Prone


Short-term headline-grabbing will always bite the headline grabber

Likening anything short of racist mass murder to racist mass murder is offensive and stupid, writes Terry Prone

Short-term headline-grabbing will always bite the headline grabber

IN the middle of the sledding and igloo-making last week, the Taoiseach announced that he was going to have the special Strategic Communications Unit (SCU) reviewed. Not as much fun for the reviewer as sledding and igloo-making, but right and proper. Nonetheless.

If, as has been claimed, the unit tried to get regional papers to run advertorials in a way that made them indistinguishable from normal editorial, someone needs a smack upside the head for being naughty and naïve. The naughty bit is obvious. Less obvious is the naïveté about local newspaper editors, who may not be punitively principled but who are properly precious. Meaning? They may be silent to your silly face if you make such a proposition to them. They may not put their outrage on the front page of the paper that carries your advertorial. But they’ll make damn sure that outrage, unattributed, makes it to the front page of someone ELSE’s newspaper. Anybody working within mainstream media who doesn’t know that is an innocent abroad. And in media terms, there’s not much more dangerous a human than an innocent abroad wanting coverage for what they perceive to be a good cause. Minefields are immeasurably safer.

The worst thing the alleged actions of the SCU provoked was — from two members of the opposition — the drawing of egregious parallels between the perhaps over-eager promulgation of the National Development Plan and the propaganda activities of Nazi Germany. Alan Kelly of Labour drew those parallels. Marc MacSharry of Fianna Fáil did likewise. The leaders of their respective parties skated backwards from the two guys who used this analogy so fast they could’ve won prizes in the Winter Olympics. To suggest that anybody involved in the publicity around the national plan could be equated with Goebbels is, frankly, outrageous.

Just why this kind of link gets made, repeatedly, is a mystery, because it simply never works. It’s cheap. It’s clueless. It’s always counterproductive. It is, on one hand, indicative of a limited understanding of the history of propaganda, and indicative, on the other hand, of an equally limited understanding of the history of the Third Reich. Likening anything short of racist mass murder to racist mass murder is offensive and stupid. Ditto likening an aspect of the mass murder campaign to anything less offensive. Ditto likening anybody in politics, PR, or any other profession to a power-fuelled philanderer who murdered his own children. It’s stupid short-term headline- grabbing that pretty much always bites the headline grabber where it hurts, and it’s the worst of a short list of things I suggest should never, ever be said by anybody.

Second in that list is: “It never did me any harm.”

This little gem is usually, but not always, uttered in reference to having the tar beaten out of the speaker by a parent or teacher. It’s one of those observations where the ensuing silence on the part of those present doesn’t indicate consent but rather an embarrassed baulking at the possibility of telling the person who was beaten as a child that the damage is real, present, self-evident to the most casual observer and that they should shut up with their sad, insight-free, self-serving theories about it.

Not that the claim to have been undamaged confines itself to violence. Thirty years ago, it was a favourite of cigarette smokers, at least half of whom went on to disprove their own beliefs by dying of a nasty variety of smoking-related diseases. It’s still articulated by drinkers, particularly the kind of drinkers who know they have a problem but are of the mistaken belief that, by constantly and casually referring to their consumption, they take the sting out of it. This is another instance of the claim going unchallenged because those present don’t want to be seen as party poopers: If you want to delude yourself, off with you.

Third statement nobody should ever make is: “Why didn’t you get an A in Geography?”

It doesn’t have to be Geography. It can be any subject. The comment happens when a kid comes home with results showing they got an A1 in history. Or English. Or maths. And the parent, instead of going for straight pride and delight, looks at the other results and wants to know what happened their student when it came to a subject where the score is less than stellar. This is one of those negatives that gets irrevocably tattooed on a teenager’s heart, achieves nothing, and tends to serve as a bitter summation of the overall family relationship.

The fourth deadly observation is: “I’m a perfectionist.”

Usually produced as an explanation, during a job interview, for not lasting in previous jobs. Everybody on the other side of the table to the self-proclaimed perfectionist knows what it really means. It means the claimant is a joyless, meddling, pompous, rigid, puritanical pain in the arse you’d hate to have in your workforce. And, while we’re on the subject of job interviews, since I’m often asked to be an external member of such panels, let me tell you that another frequent claim made always, in that context, goes down like a drowned rock. This is the one were some fool on the interviewing side asks: “Where would you see yourself in five years’ time?” And gets the answer: “In your job.”

The fifth thing nobody should ever say is a small but irritating usage frequently heard on news bulletins where something slightly out of the ordinary happens and the person to whom it happens is telling a reporter about it. The event could be a heavy snowfall or the winning of a minor award. The description used? “It’s surreal.” Not unless it has wrist watches melting over the edge of the table, it isn’t. You mean unreal. Example? It was unreal, rather than surreal, how many commentators tinkered with the word Armageddon to describe aspects of the recent snow. After ‘Armabreadon’, they should all have left it alone. Nobody was going to beat that.

PARTLY because of the snow, one of the sentences that shouldn’t ever be heard was frequently heard in the last four days: “I’m not complaining.” It’s the ultimate contradiction in terms, isn’t it? If you’re not complaining, then what is this thing that looks like a complaint but which is being introduced using a denial nobody believes for a minute? A beatitude?

The fact is that the minute anyone says “I’m not complaining,” everybody mentally supplies the “but” that inevitably follows. We all love a good moan. If you want to complain, complain. Just don’t kid yourself that you’re fooling anybody by telling them in advance that your whinge is so exceptional, it shouldn’t be filed under ‘complaint’. If you’re still with me, you’ll probably have noticed an emerging pattern. The ones who say they’re perfectionists are exactly the ones who ask why their kid didn’t get an A in Geography and deny that they’re complaining when that’s exactly what they’re doing. They also announce “I always say…” to people who wish they wouldn’t.

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