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There’s no such thing as bad publicity?

November 30, 2008

They say that all publicity is good publicity.  But is it?  Or can attempts to increase your publicity cause you to lose face?  Consider the recent example of Welsh poet Patrick Jones.

Jones’ collection of poems, Darkness is Where the Stars Are, was due to be launched in the Cardiff branch of Waterstones (a British bookseller).  The launch however was cancelled after a Christian activist group called for a boycott.  It was reported that Christian Voice deemed the book “obscene and blasphemous” and called on Waterstones to remove the books.  Although Waterstones refused to remove the book from sale, it did cancel the event, forcing Mr Jones to launch his book in the street outside.

And with that, Mr Jones came to the attention of the national news, a lone voice being bullied by a pressure group who wanted to silence free speech and prevent others from having access to his ideas.  The liberal in me bristled at this oppressive behaviour.  Religions, like all beliefs, are essentially ideas.  Objectively, each is as relevant as the next if you do not share them, and in our society none should be silenced, or exempt from challenge.

Of course, this was not the whole story…

With the publicity came that flipside of attention – scrutiny.  Journalists dug a little deeper, and discovered something quite interesting.  This did not appear to be a spontaneous campaign by a pressure group, but what appears to be a deliberate attempt by Mr Jones to provoke just such a reaction for the purposes of publicity.

Mr Jones had e-mailed samples of his poems not only to Christian Voice, but to other Christian groups, Muslim groups, and Combat 18 (for those unaware of the latter, they are a violent, far right racist group – the “18” refers to the position in the alphabet of Adolf Hitler’s initials).  The contents of the poems were challenging to the beliefs of these groups.

Mr Jones claims that he “sent a few poems to many different organisations on 2 November and […] said ‘Please find a few poems. I would appreciate your feedback’,” and that his aim was “that maybe they would come out and have a debate.”

More cynically, I would suggest he hoped that his poems would prove controversial to these groups for different reasons, resulting in them calling for a boycott of his book and protesting against it, with all the publicity that would follow.  Given the extreme reputations of some of the groups, it was prudent of Waterstones to cancel the event in order to preserve their customers’ safety.  Mr Jones should actually be glad that the relatively benign Christian Voice were the ones who protested, rather than the violent Combat 18.

So, in a free society, ideas may be expressed, challenging other ideas.  We are free to voice them, and equally free to challenge them, so long as challenge does not lead to repression.  But there is a difference between seeking debate, and actively seeking aggressive confrontation.  Mr Jones showed scant regard for the safety of those who might have attended the launch, and his actions have resulted in me moving from a position of strong support of him, to having a very poor view of his actions in his bid for publicity.

Is all publicity ultimately good?  Or do you think that actively seeking controversy is a risky tactic than can backfire.  Would you trust an author who courted controversy in order to gain publicity?

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