Another public figure bites the dust after mistaking journalists for people he can safely make unscripted jokes to. Japanese Justice Minister Minoru Yanagida was forced to swallow bucketloads of humble pie after opposition politicians seized on his off-the-cuff comments and threatened to delay an emergency budget.
His comment about his job was actually quite funny — “Being a justice minister is easy, as I only have to remember two phrases, either of which I can use in parliament whenever I’m stuck for an answer: ‘I refrain from making comments on a specific issue’ and ‘We’re dealing with the matter based on laws and evidence’.” Crucially, like most good jokes, it had an uncomfortable element of truth. And that is what probably made his resignation inevitable.
The public eye can be a remarkably humourless place. The funniest incident I remember in football was when the then-Liverpool player Robbie Fowler, after unfounded allegations of drug use from rival fans, celebrated a goal by attempting to “snort” up the white line at the edge of the pitch. It was clear self-mockery, but the po-faced guardians of public morality got going and within 24 hours Fowler was forced to grovel and mouth platitudes about the harm done by drug-use.
So what lesson do we draw? Never make jokes in public?
No. We encourage people to bring out their human side whenever appropriate. That can involve anecdotes about their past, their personal experiences, even their family. And it can perfectly well involve witty remarks. Just prepare them in advance; run a “no-offence” check and try them out on a colleague.
And resist the temptation to shoot from the hip. Remember, it’s the journalist’s job to get you to say something newsworthy, and if that means luring you into a false sense of security to commit a “gaffe”, then that’s what he or she will do.
Another example of the dangers of unscripted attempts to humanise yourself comes from NATO’s civilian chief in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill. He was giving an interview to the BBC children’s television CBBC and, doubtless trying to put things in context for a younger audience, opined that Kabul was safer for kids than London, New York or Glasgow. Ouch!
Glasgow’s city fathers were not amused. Nor were Save the Children and other charities, quick to point out that, according to a 2009 UNICEF report, Afghanistan is the most dangerous country in the world to be born in. “Daft”, was one of the kindest assessments of Sedwill’s remark. There have to be better ways of pointing out that, despite the news headlines, in a big city like Kabul many children are living relatively normal lives.
In the words of the former ambassador himself, in one of the week’s more notable understatements: “Any comment you have to clarify obviously wasn’t very well put…”