Thursday, 29 July 2010

Moving on from toxic words

THERE’s nothing as entertaining as politicians wriggling over interpretation of their words.
Many years ago there was this Newcastle City councillor who could barely string two words together. Think John Prescott, then quadruple the inarticulacy.
For years the Evening Chronicle had to tidy up his words for publication, until he actually had the cheek to complain about being misquoted.
So the paper sent their ex-Hansard, 200-words-a-minute shorthand expert to report to the letter what the councillor actually said, complete with non-sequiturs, appalling grammar and grunts. His speech was quoted in full, with explanation, and he never complained again.
I was reminded of this episode as two of Cumbria’s Coalition MPs have been caught in the glare of national publicity this week for tripping over their own words. Cries of “taken out of context” and “misinterpretation” were uttered. There’s nothing like blaming the messenger.
First out of the blocks was Rory Stewart. The newly elected Tory member for Penrith and the Borders, was accused of calling his constituents primitive, as evidenced by their proneness to wearing string to hold up their trousers.
This was seized upon by the Scottish Sun and then more sensationally by the Sunday Mirror.
Mr Stewart, a devotee of Lawrence of Arabia, and who once walked from Iraq to Bangladesh to get to know the Arab and Indian sub-continent peoples, knows a thing or two about primitive living.
He has also walked his new constituency to get a feel for the people of the Eden valley and surrounding hills. He was trying to say that rural poverty and remoteness meant that some aspects of lifestyle in the Pennines would seem primitive to urban dwellers, not that the rural folk are per se primitive.
Mr Stewart, who is now issuing apologies and threatening to take the Sunday Mirror to the Press Complaints Commission, should calm down.
When he has been around a little longer he will realise that rural folk love to fool city slickers into thinking they are poor by wearing string round their mid-riff. Some of the wealthiest farmers I know like to look like Worzel Gummidge on a bad hair day.
String may be the poor man’s friend, but don’t equate using string for sartorial support with poverty.
At least Mr Stewart had the intervention of newspaper journalists to blame for his apparent gaffe. His Liberal Democrat neighbour and colleague Tim Farron was live on Radio 4’s World at One when he referred to his party’s coalition partners as toxic Tories.
He explained that he was referring to the Tory brand having some toxic hangover from its last period in power. He actually thinks the coalition is doing well.
In the hurly-burly of debate and 24/7 scrutiny of the media, politicians are bound to say things that are quoted out of context or open to interpretation.
The worst thing they can do is apologise or, worse, try to explain what they meant to say. Being in holes, digging their way out is not the answer. Ignoring the furore and moving on is a better tactic. John Prescott got away with it for years.

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