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When a quick soundbite can create havoc and ruin lives

By Alf McCreary

Published 13/06/2015

Wrong note: Sir James Galway should have had the wit not to mix politics with plugging his TV show
Wrong note: Sir James Galway should have had the wit not to mix politics with plugging his TV show

One week ago, Sir James Galway created a furore by his ill-judged remarks on the British "occupation" of Ireland, and other controversial subjects.

As a world-class artist of long-standing, he should have had the wit not to mix politics with an opportunity to plug an up-coming musical programme.

The row has largely died down, because news quickly moves on, but some people will recall James Galway's remarks every time he takes to the stage in his native province. They may not say anything, but they will certainly not forget those words.

However, we should not be too hard on James Galway because all of us have said things we later had cause to regret.

This is so apparent among public figures, including politicians like Jim Wells, who have had long experience with the media. Sadly, as Mr Wells discovered, you can ruin a political career with a 30-second soundbite.

One of the problems of our modern society is that many people do not read, and much less heed, the wise words which are written in the Book of James in the New Testament.

"… the tongue is a little member and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth … the tongue can no man tame; it is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison .."

These are strong words but their truth has been proved over many centuries. The tongue wrongly used, can create havoc.

In today's world there is too much talk among too many people about too many things. We mistake the babble of noise for wisdom, and too often we merely look for an opportunity to insert ourselves into a conversation without listening to what the other person is trying to say. This is particularly obvious in the broadcast media. In my early career, I was regularly invited to appear on BBC and other programmes because I was expected to have something relevant and topical to say, as a journalist.

Today, it would seem that almost anyone can appear on a radio programme because there is so much time to fill.

What the broadcasters fail to realise, however, is that the attention span of the listener or viewer is becoming less and less.

When I switch on a television programme and the presenter introduces local politicians to discuss a controversial topic, I often wince and search for the remote control. There is no point in listening to the same old figures, saying the same old things about the same old tiring subjects. In one sense, language has become devalued and words are too often used merely to blank out the silence when there is really little or nothing to be said.

However, it is not just public figures or the broadcasters who are at fault. Millions of words are spoken or transmitted by people on social media about matters that are of little importance.

Most worrying of all is the prospect of some of your words or mine coming back to haunt us. How would you feel if every word you uttered had been recorded and was being played back to your family, your friends and the general public?

The James Galway episode is a cautionary tale for all of us. He should have remembered the old Irish maxim: "Whatever you say, say nothing." Or, better still, we should all heed the advice of St James about controlling our tongues. If we all learned to shut our mouths more often, there might be less trouble in the world.

'If we learned

to shut our

mouths there'd be less trouble'

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