Last weekend, on a visit to old friends in London, I asked after a chap I didn't see much any more, but had always liked.
On paper Joe was much the same as the other city boys I'd met while living in the capital; rich family, private schooling, trust fund to cushion any curveball blow.
But in person he stood out a mile from his colleagues who, despite my constant state of alert against stereotypes, I have to say, hand on heart, tended towards the loud, arrogant, self-fixated Bullingdon sort, their beautiful Merchant Ivory accents never quite compensating for their contempt for working class, female or other unlucky social groups. You know the kind; they're currently in charge of the country.
Joe (not his real name) had a notably softer, more self-deprecating face, and a personality to match; he was genuinely interested in other people and keen to take their advice, and he had a warmth and natural kindness which probably saw him labelled a chump among his peers. Despite the family money which would have allowed him a lazy luxurious life, he was also an excitable entrepreneur, always brimming with ideas.
The last time I saw him he had a little stall in Portobello market selling funny labels for cigarette packs which he wrote and produced himself. He was thrilled by them and had complete faith they would make him a millionaire in his own right.
When I asked after him last week I was shown a tabloid newspaper report about a ruthless "millionaire's son" who'd driven his Mercedes haphazardly down a London street before striking someone and killing them. I hated this man when I read about him. I knew exactly the type – over-privileged rich kid, didn't give a damn about the consequences of what he did, no sense of responsibility to other people.
Except he wasn't any of those things. He was Joe, and, if you read right to the end of the article, you found out he'd been made bankrupt the previous day and lost control of his mind for a night, instantly ruining his own life and the life of an innocent family. He pleaded guilty, offered no excuse, and was now in prison. All his big dreams were up in smoke, and according to my friend, who was writing to him, he was having a very tough time mentally, wracked with shame and fear. He never was very tough.
My heart breaks for Joe, as it does for the family of the person he killed. He was easily caricatured in a tabloid newspaper as the enemy of the ordinary decent man, but the truth is much more complex.
I thought of him again when I saw how much glee met the prison sentences of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce this week. On paper, I don't much like the sounds of either of them, but the truth is, the more I understand about journalism – its demand for headlines, its reliance on reductionism, its need to replace 500-page personalities with one-dimensional cartoon characters – the less trust I have in my judgment of the people I read about.
Whoever said "the more we learn the less we know" was on to something. Humility and the urge to find out more should guide our attempts to understand the world, and those who revel in derision and disapproval should remember that – lest they, God forbid, should one day make a mistake which sees them at the sharp end of the media gaze.