Thursday, February 21, 2013

Out of Context

It is surprising and sometimes shocking how different the meaning of a phrase or sentence can be if ripped from the proper context. Words which in context are clearly ironic can appear as if meant to be taken at face value, opinions which are meant to be a description of views presented by others can appear to be the speaker's own views, remarks which are actually intended as a call to action can appear as an excuse for doing nothing, or vice versa.

Doubtless this was part of what was meant by the author of the French expression

"Qu'on me donne six lignes Ă©crites de la main du plus honnĂȘte homme, j'y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre."

which can be translated into English as

"If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him."

(This saying is usually attributed to Cardinal Richelieu, though it may actually be the words of one of his agents.)

The most egregious instance of such an out-of-context quote in the twentieth century were the words of Mrs Thatcher, endlessly repeated on their own, that "there is no such thing as society."

In context what Mrs T was actually saying was that if you want something done, a problem resolved, or someone cared for, you cannot depend on an abstract concept like "Society" to do it: she went on to say that "There are individual men and women, and there are families" and they must take action if anything tangible was to be done.

Which is pretty close to the exact opposite of what those seven words sound like when quoted on their own, as they usually are.

This week we seem to have had something similar with the words of prize winning novelist Hilary Mantel, who made a speech a fortnight ago at the British Museum, at an event organised by the London Review of Books. Most of her 30-paragraph speech was about the role and perception of the monarchy, focussing on historical monarchs and consorts from the time of her best-selling novels e.g. Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. But she included four paragraphs about the way the press has presented the Duchess of Cambridge.

For six days there was little or no reaction. Then suddenly some journalist found the speech on the LRB website and it didn't take long before extracts from those four paragraphs were all over the media, presented as the novelist's own views and leading to headlines about   "vicious, venomous" and "withering" "rants" and "attacks" on the Duchess all over Tuesday's papers including more than one front page.

Ironically the very media storm which blew up a few days after the lecture appears to have been a classic example of exactly the kind of media response to the Duchess and other royal family members (especially female ones) that Hilary Mantel was talking about.

The Prime minister was on the other side if the world when the row blew up, trying to help jobs and incomes in Britain by boosting trade with and exports to India. Needless to say some journalist asked the PM on live TV what he thought of the reported comments on the Duchess. Absolutely anything which David Cameron had said in response to this question could and inevitably would have been used to give more legs to the story, and then been attacked in turn by some commentators as wrong.

Perhaps we ought to have an inquiry into the way the press operates. Oh wait, we've just had Leveson.

It's like certain types of takeaway food: you have one press inquiry and not long after you want another one!


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