The Tarring and Feathering of David Jones
There was a striking story in the news yesterday: David Jones, the UK Welsh Minister was reported as saying that gay couples "clearly" cannot provide a "warm and safe environment" in which to raise children. The fuller quote from the minister is this: "I regard marriage as an institution that has developed over many centuries, essentially for the provision of a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can't do." So, on the face of it, it's a pretty offensive statement. Jones issued a statement of clarification which included this: "I simply sought to point out that, since same-sex partners could not biologically procreate children, the institution of marriage was one that, in my opinion, should be reserved to opposite-sex partners." He also explicitly rejected the notion he was against gay adoption.
So, I'd have thought the debate would be about the meaning of his original statement. Was his clarification a smokescreen to hide offensive views, or did he just express his views poorly? Instead, reports on the matter were a free-for-all with various public figures expressing their disgust for Jones' original words; the articles betrayed no apparent journalistic interest in what he actually meant. His clarification generally came halfway down the articles. At least the Independent noted, "Mr Jones told The Independent that he did believe that gay couples could bring up children in a warm and safe environment and that his remarks had been taken out of context".
I think all this is symptomatic of something rather serious: the constant scapegoating of people by the news media. We're fed a steady stream of figures to be outraged by, to feel better than, disguised as current affairs. But this story gives the lie to it: I've not seen a single article on the subject which starts with the central issue: what did Jones mean by his original words? The reason seems obvious: it's great copy to talk about people's outrage, and you can't really do that if you've shown that their outrage might be misplaced. The articles give the impression of being impartial, but the avoidance of examining what Jones actually meant suggests they are essentially cynical, offering him up for public humiliation over an offence which the journalists well know may be very trivial. The attitude seems to be, "We don't care if we needlessly destroy a politician's career as long as we get two days of good headlines out of it." The casual cruelty of it is surely rather shocking, or would be if it wasn't so commonplace in our media. Is this really how we want our politicians to be treated?
As for David Jones, his original words seem to be very clear, but I doubt he meant what they appear to say, and not just because he explicitly repudiates that meaning. He says marriage is to provide "a warm and safe environment for the upbringing of children, which is clearly something that two same-sex partners can't do". Why "clearly"? Why should it be clear that gay couples can't provide a safe environment for children? It's a non-sequitur. I think it's more likely he meant it's clear gay couples can't biologically have children together, but in the heat of the moment missed out a few crucial words. Let's assume he meant what the words appear to say - he'd be essentially saying, "gay people are evil". How likely is it that a government minister would express such a sentiment?
It is quite daring to wade into this particular debate and yet you do so with considerable thoughtfulness and consideration. You could apply the same question about what was really meant by the speaker, as opposed to what the journalists perceived or wanted to see, to the arguments that have arisen from Hilary Mantel's comments on the Duchess of Cambridge. In this latter case one could be forgiven for thinking that Ms Mantel is too too bright not to have realised she would stir things up. Mr Jones, on the other hand, is a politician and should be aware that what he says may be reported, that whatever is reported will be reduced in quality as well as quantity to suit the medium reporting him and that he should take care how he says something to ensure he says not only what he means and but something he can stand by if challenged. It would also help if those, who make comments on these difficult issues and who are privileged to be in positions where they can be expected to have a ready audience, would try to stick to comments that can be supported by evidence. At least you, Mr Osborne, have tried to discuss the evidence that allows us to dispute what Mr Jones MP seems to have said. Had he considered that before he spoke, he would not have drawn such ire. But perhaps I expect too much from those less used to sifting evidence before they pass comments. Your final question, when applied generally to what government ministers may or may not express, begs an answer: history suggests that they are human and, so, flawed just like the rest of us and some will express fairly dubious thoughts.
Posted by Dr Alan Rodger on 20 February 2013
"...in the heat of the moment missed out a few crucial words." I can't see that it is a matter of missing out a few crucial words. In any case, people in major public positions have a responsibility to find the words to say what they have in mind.
Posted by Paul Brownsey on 25 May 2013
Paul, I start from the position of thinking what is most likely. His words clearly seem to say one thing, but I think it so unlikely a politician would willingly admit to such a sentiment that I reckon he probably didn't mean it as it came out. My real point is the cynicism of the media.
Posted by Steven Osborne on 25 May 2013
Alan, I'm sorry I missed your comment. I think there's a big difference between a scripted speech and an unscripted interview; depending on one's speaking ability, it can be easy to get in a verbal tangle. Should it be a requirement that a politician be eloquent in expressing themselves? While a great help, I don't think it's the most important quality. As to your past point, yes sometimes people let slip dubious thoughts and while that might be the case here, somehow I doubt it; that he said 'obviously' suggests to me he's thinking of something self-evident. The biology is self-evident; the question of nurturing ability isn't.
Posted by Steven Osborne on 25 May 2013