Belfast Telegraph

Friday 11 July 2014

Give critics the cold shoulder

It's a confession which has rocked the country, arriving just as the mince pies are heating up, the fairy is being placed on top of the tree and the living-room fire is rosying baby's plump cheeks.

Snowman creator Raymond Briggs has revealed that his much-loved festive story is not a warm fuzzy fable about childhood imagination but is in fact a grim tale about the inevitability of death.

"The snowman melts, my parents died, animals die, flowers die," said Briggs this week, just in case you were having trouble making your own soul-crushing list.

Briggs, having become irritated by the hijacking of his story by sentimentalists, is of course fully entitled to spike The Snowman mythology. But, in the current climate, he should take care. He might upset children with his revelation, maybe even a few delicate adults. He could sap the Christmas spirit out of entire communities. By replacing joy with despair, his cold words could lead to a rise in depression, divorce and family breakdown. And though he might defend himself with the argument that he couldn't possibly have foreseen such a reaction, public enemy Briggs will be told that if he couldn't be 100% sure of the consequences, he shouldn't have taken such a terrible risk.

An exaggeration, perhaps, but behind this ostensibly flippant hypothesis there's a serious point, particularly pertinent this week. The argument about the unpredictability of the outcome of seemingly innocuous actions being a good reason never to do them has been regularly thrown at the Australian DJs who made the prank call we keep being told 'led to the death' of nurse Jacintha Saldanha.

We know Saldanha took the call but gave no information to the callers. We have had no details about her state of mind, nor about any aspect of her private life, which is exactly as it should be. Suicide is a private tragedy whose weight is beyond bearing for those left behind. The truth behind it is usually complicated, confusing, and often inexplicable, and, as those of us who have suffered such a horror in our own families know, often has a long, tangled history.

In short, the facts tend to be far too complex - and probably unbeknownst to - a media determined to find an immediate cause and scapegoat. A media who are also, in this case, keen to shift the spotlight from their own hysterical response to the DJ's silly joke, which saw some reporters insist that the hospital's reputation would suffer badly from an event in which its security had been found lacking (even though the DJs weren't given, nor did they seek, any meaningful information whatsoever.)

Yes the prank was cheap and daft, but does it really make us all feel better that the DJs have now been humiliated and made to weep in front of a worldwide audience? Are we hoping to break them, take their livelihoods away, get them on anti-depressants? How badly do we want them to suffer before we start looking for someone to blame for destroying their lives?

Perhaps it's fear of a world which makes no sense, which we can't control, that draws us to scape-goating. Or maybe it's just natural schadenfreude. But for every football manager sacked for a bad run, every social worker blamed for an abused child, every corporation director forced to resign for a crisis before his time, we might, as a caring society, do better to shine a light at the finger-pointers, rather than the people they're pointing at.

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