Saturday, 13 August 2011

David, David, David...

What have David Starkey and Kenneth Clarke got in common? Is it that they both like the same sort of men? Is it that they were both in the reserve 11 for the 1996 European championship squad? Is it perhaps that for a time they were controlled by the same demon? No, the thing that they have in common is that they have both caused outrage on twitterbook.

If you haven't seen David Starkey and what Emily Maitliss described as "the moment" then here it is.

I don't think that my job is to wonder which is worse, racism or making light of rape, and I certainly don't think that the reaction will be the same when the dust has settled. Kenneth Clarke and David Starkey are different; one is a politician that has to be liked and the other makes a career of being stern and not caring what people think of him. Ken Clarke had to explain and chances are David Starkey won't.

I've interviewed David Starkey on a number of occasions and the first time I did I was terrified. I was familiar with his work on BBC Radio 4's 'The Moral Maze', a programme where he was positively encouraged to destroy people with his intellect. I had to talk to him on the occasion of The Queen distributing Maundy Money* at Gloucester Cathedral. I prepped like no one else could; hours were spent researching the political significance of the ceremony and how it is part of the pact between Ruler and Subjects. It was a live telephone interview and they are often the most difficult as there's no eye contact or body language to reinforce the verbal message. We started talking, he was assured and fluent, and I had a trill of nerves in my voice, however, I got through to him, he warmed me up and the moment that he laughed with me at a shared joke everything was fine.

I spoke to him on air a number of times after that and I always found him an intellectual challenge but very giving in the interview context.

What has surprised me about his faux pas (if such a delicate term can be used) is that it was an inelegant summing up of how he saw the situation. It seems that to full fill the needs of televisual brevity he missed out some very significant nuance; he gives us the answer without letting us see the working out. I bet he'd formed a pleasing sentence in the taxi to the studio and assumed that we'd certainly pick up the background.

In contrast Ken Clarkes 'Rape gaffe' was a product of him being hemmed into a corner by a sharp interviewer and a bad choice of words.

So what do you do if your organisation has said the wrong thing, either by design, omission, or idiocy? If it's by design and it all blows up in your face then you really need a strategic rethink, if it's by omission play the long game if your reputation is one of caring and sharing then explain immediately; if you're the industrial version of prickly David Starkey then sit back and curse the world for not understanding. The last one is easier to deal with, apologise hard and fast and then fire the idiot!


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