Today’s headlines are tomorrow’s chip wrappers. Careers have often been defined by the press they generate – from John Profumo to John ’two jags’ Prescott – and in a world of 24/7 social media, bad press is there for the taking. It isn’t just ‘famous for being famous’ celebrities for whom there is no such thing as bad publicity who are affected; Cat Bin Woman, whoever Jeremy Kyle’s guest is today and Gordon Brown’s ‘bigoted woman’ to name but three, have all found themselves in the spotlight.

Recently, Nobel prize-winning cancer researcher Sir Tim Hunt was dumped by UCL for making ‘sexist comments’ – sexist comments that turned out to be an obvious joke, and a joke poking fun at sexism at that. Even if he were a total chauvinist, which I admit I find extremely unpleasant, were I to be diagnosed with cancer, I’d take quite a lot of it before refusing a doctor’s treatment. Sir Tim is a recent social media villain (I nearly wrote ‘latest’, but there is surely another one by now) and his story closely follows the typical pattern of such stories.
  1. Unfortunate statement, mis-timed joke or unguarded comment is captured on one of the world’s billion cameraphones. It is shared on social media and interpreted as the mask slipping to reveal a greater, unspoken truth (e.g. top scientist is sexist).
  2. It is reaches the attention of an ‘influencer’ who shares the content – and their further interpretation of it – with their network.
  3. The content reaches the threshold point of crossing into traditional media. As broadcasters and newspapers alike are cutting back on the number of journalists they employ, these outlets are increasingly reliant on ‘citizen journalists’ to provide content and bump it up to headline status.
  4. Traditional media find and report the most extreme social media posts about the content, and outlier examples of their attitudes in practice: action is demanded (e.g. ’Women are treated badly in scientific research. This man should be fired!’).
  5. The person who made the comment in the first place is doorstepped and panics: they either try to justify the comments at face value, dismiss them as a ‘joke’, or distance themselves from what they said, and whoever employs them sacks them a few days later.
  6. After a few days, the media have raked over the past of the person who first reported the comments. Their political views, unguarded comments and mistakes are deployed to make them appear as a vexatious complainant (e.g. unmasked as a self-proclaimed feminist).
  7. The originator of the comments is venerated as a martyr to the mysterious forces of ‘political correctness’. The person who reported them is castigated. The organisation that sacked them is held in contempt for caving in to public pressure.
The learning outcome of this is that new media are the petrol in the engine of a news story, but the major news outlets are still driving the car. In Sir Tim’s case, he’s lost his job, UCL looks silly, and feminism has had a bad rap. Sexism, to be sure, is bad, and those retweets were made from the best of motivations, but in this case, as so often, the most newsworthy example of it has turned out not to stand much scrutiny.
And at the end of it, who has benefitted? Has it prevented any sexism? No. Has it damaged the work of research scientists? Yes.
Next time on the blog, what you should and shouldn’t say if it happens to you.
Insider Secrets of Public Speaking is available here.
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