In some respects, little has changed since the 19th century – apart from the 24-hour news cycle. So when Conservative chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s alleged outburst to police officers – one female – at the House of Commons entered a news cycle dominated by the fatal shooting of two WPCs, his reported comments magnified in significance.
With a country shocked by the cold-blooded murders, our collective sympathy for vulnerable officers doing a difficult job was already heightened.
Place Mr Mitchell’s incident alongside that and repeat constantly on all-day news channels, round-the-clock radio, worldwide internet coverage and news stands across the country highlighting broadsheet and tabloid newspaper headlines, and you have a storm of controversy whipped up by gale-force winds.
At the same time, the alleged racist remarks made by the then Chelsea and England captain John Terry to QPR’s Anton Ferdinand was entering the news again – while in the United States, a Republican White House candidate on the back foot, Mitt Romney, was dealing with the fallout of branding almost half of America as “victims, moochers and ne’er-do-wells”.
All this begs the question: are we ever allowed to say what we really think – or do we always have to choose our words carefully? The higher we climb in society, the more we have to apply the filter we all possess to stop offensive thoughts from becoming offensive words. Our thoughts are our own – but our words belong to everybody who cares to repeat them, interpret them and misinterpret them.
The 6th-century BC Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu observed: “Watch your thoughts, they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.”
The natural conclusion for Messers Mitchell, Terry and Romney is that their thoughts will ultimately become their destiny.
• Bill McFarlan is managing director of the Broadcasting Business.