Media training

Right to reply: should you state your case or shut up?

It’s been a big week for news about communications and the right to reply but I want to reflect on one thing today: The Simpsons. OK, two things, I want to consider the singer Morrissey as well, and his management. Three things.

The story is simple. The Simpsons has made an episode taking the whatsit out of a celebrity. This is not out of character, it’s something the show does all the time. As you’ll gather from the intro, the celebrity in question was Morrissey and the character they portrayed him as was a former vegetarian, principled star of the 1980s who was now an overweight meat eater and a bit of a reactionary. The BBC had the story on the Today programme on Radio 4 and on its website, you can read it by clicking this link.

As I said in yesterday’s video above, I’m not interested in the rights and wrongs of what Morrissey does or doesn’t believe, either now or in the present. I have no idea whether or not he is still vegetarian but either way I am in no position to criticise someone for being an overweight person who eats meat. I believe he and his management have made one major error though, and that is in exercising the right to reply.

Right to reply can backfire

Many years ago, the then prime minister of the UK and Northern Ireland John Major was accused of having an affair. Ironically it emerged subsequently that he had done just that, with minister Edwina Currie, but not with the person in the accusation (one of the Dowming Street catering staff). The allegation appeared in a magazine called Spike and Major’s decision initially was to ignore it. His logic was impeccable; Spike was a tiny magazine with a low circulation so hardly anyone would have seen the story. Taking them to court or making statements about it in public would simply have drawn attention to the issue.

Later, when the Daily Telegraph carried the story, he sued successfully. His judgement was that it now had traction and needed to be intercepted.

Nobody is saying Morrissey has done anything similar. However, by deciding not to let the issue fade by itself and instead putting vicious statements about The Simpsons out on social media he and his management have drawn attention to the issue. I like the cartoon but it’s a while since I’ve seen an episode; I would not have been aware that there was an episode saying so many unpleasant things about the singer had he and his team not made so sure I knew all about it. I also know how rattled they are by the incident, something I’m guessing they’d rather I hadn’t seen.

In your business or that of your clients you might have a related issue – not that they’ve grown into an ageing rock star or that they’ve had an affair with a member of their catering staff but you or they may be receiving negative coverage. The question I’d challenge you to ask yourself is that although a journalist is likely to offer the right to reply, is that going to help or just repeat the negative in a fresh story about your response?

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