“Don’t wrestle with a pig.”
“Don’t respond, it only encourages them.”
“Don’t give them the oxygen of publicity.”
There’s no shortage of advice for us – as people and as journalists – when it comes to dealing with criticism and controversy.
So what to do, then, when someone says something utterly and offensively wrong?
A fascinating case study for a new ethics module I’ll be teaching next year emerged at the weekend.
What appeared to be a Christian pressure group tweeted its own take on diver Tom Daley’s disappointing performance in the 10-metre platform event at the Olympics.
— Christian Voice (@UKCV) August 20, 2016
I know not who first pounced on this appalling statement, but my Twitter feed soon became dotted with reaction. Much of it was witty, articulate and subtle – everything that Christian Voice is not, in fact.
Turning vicious, spiteful and unchristian doesn’t seem to have done @UKCV any favours, thank God!
— Brian Paddick (@brianpaddick) August 21, 2016
JK Rowling also weighed in, as did many, more enlightened, Christians.
Now, I feel particularly protective about Tom. He’s from my home city of Plymouth. He went to the same school as me. He’s one of ours.
So I was glad that the Plymouth Herald was onto it. And gladder still that its thoughtful award-winning reporter Sam Blackledge was the man on the case.
I tweeted Sam to encourage him to keep pursuing Christian Voice to hold it to account.
He didn’t need my encouragement. But he did raise a concern that his story might be giving publicity to an organisation that should perhaps be left in the swamp.
It wasn’t so much his view – he made that clear in a blog post – as that of some of his readers.
And it’s a fair point.
Too many stories that I have seen on this whole thing were drive-by shootings, collections of Twitter embeds with footnotes saying – as this Huffington Post version did – that they had ‘reached out’ to Christian Voice. And then moved on.
But if they’d stayed on the case, they would have seen a longer post from Christian Voice which revels in the fact that it received an extra 20,000 hits on its website and had become “noticed by the great and the good.”
So, clearly Christian Voice – with just a few hundred Twitter followers – is loving it.
It turns out that the group is pretty much a one-man band.
But it’s one that now appears to be revelling in its raised profile.
So should we have risen to the bait? Or should the media have treated Christian Voice with the dismissive contempt that it perhaps deserves? Should we have refused to dignify its comments with what turns out to be the rewarding response of coverage?
As with all the best media moral dilemmas, there ain’t no easy answers.
I’m still torn. Particularly as I’m very sympathetic to the view, touched on here, that the media can be guilty of focusing too heavily on conflict and controversy.
But in the end, I still want the Sams of this world to pursue the Christian Voices of this world.
So that other Christians know what is being effectively said in their name. So that the Daily Mail can’t turn to this lot when it needs a tame moral campaigner to say the things it wants someone to say.
And so that the Toms of this world – anyone at the sharp end of discrimination and hatred – know that such poison will always be challenged.