Poles, Politeness and Politics in the age of Twitter

I sometimes think that when I die there should be two graves dug: the first would be the usual kind of size, say 2 feet by 7, but the other would be much, much larger. The gravestone should read: ME AND MY BIG MOUTH.

I suspect most of you will have heard of the shitstorm that howled about the head of Jan Moir, a journalist who wrote a beastly article in the Daily Mail about the death of Stephen Gately the day before his funeral. I don’t propose to stop and pick over the carcass of that epically ill-judged piece of gutter journalism. Its malice, stupidity, incoherent illogicality and crass insensitivity have been superbly anatomised by many others and besides, too much time has passed, a whole 24 hours at the time of writing and for the online world, which is still a child, a year is a decade and a day a whole month.

If I were to express sympathy for Jan Moir here some of you might think I had gone soft in the head. And yet I do feel sorry for her. There are those, there will always be those, who believe that she knew exactly what she was doing and that she is relishing her notoriety, that the sight of her name topping the Twitter trend lists will give her nothing but frissons of pleasure. I do not believe this. Yes, I expect that she will, in time, revisit her disaster. I dare say she will write the inevitable Vulnerable Frightened Piece in which she tells the world just how tyrannised, terrorised and victimised she felt; piling on the image of the concerned mum (if she is one) who was just trying to ask questions; the honest (and perhaps naive, yes, she’ll admit to that) journalist who sowed a doubt and reaped a whirlwind. Such articles always end with Serious Questions, in this case concerning the Future of Democracy Itself if it is to be left in the hands of the firebrands, hysterics and (Dark Hints) possibly sinister forces that patrol and control the internet. It will all be silly, distressing, disingenuous and ignorant, but then she is a tabloid columnist and that is her job. The reason I feel sorry for her is not that she is a journalist, or that she writes for the Daily Mail, I am quite sure she can do without my pompous, patronising sympathy. I feel sorry for her because I know just what it is like to make a monumental ass of oneself and how hard it is to find the road back. I know all too well what it is like to be inebriated, as Disraeli put it, by the exuberance of my own verbosity.


Only a week and a half ago I was asked to appear on Channel 4 news to comment on the Conservative Party and their decision to ally themselves in the European Parliament with the Polish Law and Justice Party, a nationalist grouping whose members have made statements of the most unpleasantly homophobic and antisemitic nature. I usually decline such invitations, and how I wish I had done so on this occasion. I think I accepted for the achingly dumb reason that I happened to be in the Holborn area all that day and the ITN news studios were just round the corner, so it seemed like an easy gig. The more probable explanation is that, as my father and squadrons of school teachers correctly reminded me throughout my childhood and youth, “Stephen just doesn’t think.” Anyway. Words tumbled from my lips during that interview that were as idiotic, ignorant and offensive as you could imagine. It had all been proceeding along perfectly acceptable lines until I said something like “let’s not forget which side of the border Auschwitz was on.”

I mean, what was I thinking? Well, as I say, I wasn’t. The words just formed themselves in a line in my head, as words will, and marched out of the mouth. I offer no excuse. I seemed to imply that the Polish people had been responsible for the most infamous of all the death factories of the Third Reich. I didn’t even really at the time notice the import of what I had said, so gave myself no opportunity instantly to retract the statement. It was a rubbishy, cheap and offensive remark that I have been regretting ever since.

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235 comments on “Poles, Politeness and Politics in the age of Twitter”

  1. Robin Rowlands says:

    Join Stephens Twitter whilst you can!!!

    Robin Rowlands

  2. Robin Rowlands says:

    What is it all about – well its about our children and what kind of world they are going to grow up in.

    If we do nothing then we cant expect anything to happen, even if the other guy tries to fix it, without the help of others what can he achieve.

    The Newspapers and TV Channels can’t go and expose the corrupt political and financial elite unless all of us start the ball rolling.

    Without our engagement and commitment we will leave our children a world in which democracy are little more than lifeless husks.

    The Newspapers and TV Channels are waiting for the public to run with this story so their lawyers will let them cover that engagement and so leak the full story.

    If you dont ask the questions they cant point you to the answers.

    It has always been that way.

    So twitter facebook make it so.

    Robin Rowlands

  3. jswats71@bigpond.com says:

    Hi Stephen

    Just viewed ep. 12 of F series QI ( gets here late in Australia dammit!) and was wanting to add some comments on heart disease and dental disease.
    Although there is a link between periodontal disease and heart disease, it is a manipulation of the stats to say you are twice as likely to get one if you have the other because there are so many confounding factors.
    It seems most likely, according to current research, that host response factors ie. the host inflammatory vascular reaction to comensal bacteria, are the main determinant in the development of both diseases.
    This seems to bring it down to your genes.
    If you are genetically suseceptible to having the agressive inflammatory response to periodontal bacteria, then you are also predisposed to develop atheromatous plaques in your arteries via the same inflammatory mechanism.
    Another quite interesting link has been drawn between women with periodontal disease and low birth weight babies.
    All this if probably v.late and commented on by many dentists already, but it’s great to see current dental research included in the realms of QI.

    Love,love,love QI. Its very frustrating not to have easy access to its exquisiteness.
    John Watson BDSc(WA) FRACDS

  4. michael elmore-meegan says:

    It is sad that because people can be cruel and insensitive they often are. The gutter press so often cause hurt without any thought or reason. What unkindness there is in our world. Mike

  5. william_cain says:

    Hello Mr. Fry,

    My name…er, is actually my username, how convenient!

    I’m a US citizen who has had the pleasure of making several friendships in the United Kingdom, all of whom have directed me to your many endeavors. I’m glad they did so, because I find you’re one of the most genuinely gentlemanly people I have ever had the pleasure to observe. Your wit and talents have given me more confidence to stand up for things I believe in, and I wish I had the opportunity to see you live at some event. I doubt you’ll be in my area, however! Still, I wanted to say that I think your apology here is one of the most heartfelt and unequivocal I have ever read, and I hope it is received by those it was intended to reach.

    From one American fan, all my fond regards.


    William F Cain III

  6. Beanzy says:

    Relax – as the saying goes ‘no one died’ because you blurted something silly.
    I’m sure most people understand and can accept an apology, especially one so well formed.
    It takes a special person to make one, it’d be a bit more special if it was made before the pressure was piled on. :) As you indicated it seems like a case of pride before the fall, rather than anything particularly wrong with coming out with a doofus moment.

    If you’re to take one thing from this incident Stephen, I’d recommend having the apologies as ready as the quips.
    Don’t self censor, just be ready to ask aloud if what you’ve just said/ are about to say is going to hurt anyone. If so is it still justifiable?.
    Beyond that, people get a great deal of good from what you say and how you express it with your spontaneity. So keep spouting away, but just be quick to recant or self question if something you chirp makes you uneasy.

  7. savioursofpop says:

    I think perhaps the issues within the piece are more closely linked than Stephen has made out. My thoughts here http://strategicdigitalthinking.blogspot.com/2009/11/mind-changing.html

  8. Robin Rowlands says:

    I am wary of idealists they all to easily become fanatics,
    most people try to make the most of their lives and seek to advance

    their families
    their neighbours
    their communities
    the world as a whole

    The truth is we are all different, life is in the (and) not the (or)
    My letter is simultaneously the truth and the ultimate sting.

    Ask your doctor about nvcjd or mmr – look in their eyes – just like last time – everyone knows not to look.

    MMR – Our governments knew that children were being sacrificed for the common good (just a few) they looked the other way and as it got ever worse and (the few became many) they could not face what they had done.

    NVCJD – Our governments wanted a modern world they refused to acknowledge or face this horror and in leaving things to happen that they knew were wrong have allowed it to become an abomination.

    Our Governments dont need to find the truth, just the courage to tell us that life can be hard and governments useless that is not a secret.

    The letter – its logic – its D/DA Notice (Government Suppresion) – tell the truth.

    When up against it people tend to pull together, it is a small few who care only for themselves.

    Bad things happen – Denial is not the way forward.

    Holocaust Denial? Steven – Not You – Never
    Whatever the truth you cant find it if you dont look.
    Pull back the Curtains let the light back in.

    Robin Rowlands

  9. Blaker says:

    I fully support what you did to support Stephen Gately and his friends and family, so I’m particularly troubled by your inconsistency in having participated in a discussion on QI with Alan Davies that cruelly took the piss out of people with learning difficulties. I refer to episode 6 from series B wehn you allowed Alan free reign to typify people with learning difficulties as “mad”, trivialising the problems and reinforcing the prejudices they face. Particularly bad when we hear the outcome of the inquest into the death of Fiona Pilkington, driven to gruesome suicide by the incessant bullying by local kids towards her disabled daughter. Were their taunts any worse than those on episode 6, series B? Shouldn’t you be able to understand the consequences of allowing those words (albeit a few years old) to be broadcast today? However there is a chance to redeem yourself. The discussion was about the paralympics and how cheating led to the withdrawal of events for athletes with learning difficutlies. On 21st of this month the Paralympic association meet and part of the agenda is to discuss reintroduction of events for learning disabled athletes. Will you please stand up, admit that conversation was wrong and implore the BBC, Dave, DVD distributors etc to edit it from future reproductions of the episode? Will you write to the paralympic committee and encourage them to do the right thing in time for the London Olympics?
    I sincerely hope you can because I believe it will make a difference.
    You see I still like you even though you allowed bad things to be said – like the man said “consistency is the hobgoblin of the small mind”

  10. garethwild says:

    I’m sure you’re over it now
    I did something similar on a very popular advertising blog
    writing an ill considered response must be a bigger crime than talking/thinking on your feet but again I wasn’t really thinking.

    I seem to be using David Ogilvy’s great advertising quote a lot lately – I think he was talking about focus groups but applies in more general terms too:

    “The consumer does not behave as they say, they do not say what they think and they do not think what they feel.”

  11. Anichka says:

    Dear Stephen

    What you explained is perfectly understandable. You admitted it as your omission in a kind of a kind, sincere and natural way for which you have quite deservedly earned yourself such a huge funbase ( me being one of those, ever since I came to the UK nearly 20years ago, you were probably the only living example of a classical, traditional, conservative and attractive for the kindness and optimism you radiated). There is an issue much worse, I believe, which you may be facing, and that is being put down by the emerging sub-prime tabloid reader/writer bloggers seeking popularity at your expense – in attempts to throw dirt over you to make themselves look good. As old trick as the world…One day your kind would be extinct, and this country will have nothing else to offer. You caught my eye ( or I caught yours) in the Claridges a month ago, where I had a meeting, and you were drinking whatever, and ever since wanted to write with you in mind. Please please do not succumb to the upset caused by the yellow press even if it looks white at times, you are a classy guy, and so should look at that stuff from above. :)

  12. vckymo says:

    Don’t put yourself in the same category as Jan Moir – I take it you read her “apology”?

    Anyway, this line made me chuckle: “Stephen just doesn’t think.” change the Stephen to Vicky and it’s too true! (or even Vcky – I misspelled my own name when I registered, to comment on this, can you believe it?)

  13. tcwp says:

    Stephen and loyal followers of Stephen. I’ve just discovered this site and am terribly happy to be here. Thank you Stephen for hours of pleasure…
    Love, Tina

  14. LadyGirlPerson says:


    I love your mind. I love the breadth and width of all your passions and how you express your feelings. The fact that you are brave enough to use your voice and your words to put honesty into the world is a wonderful gift to all of humanity. I wish more people would just simply say what needs to be said, but only if they could do it and have it invoke the same calm and content feelings that you inspire in others.

    You are such a gentleman and such a charming and dear person that I don’t think that even if you tried to be nasty that it could be very nasty at all. Your very nature betrays the kindness in you puts a gentleness that you cannot get rid of, no matter what words escaped from your mouth or your pen.

    In all of your work, you are one who owns the words. You never inflict words on others. You share. You’re allowed to share, even if it is negative and I don’t think you should apologize for having feelings and opinions of your own.

    I guess what I’m trying to say is that when it comes to you expressing your opinions, you don’t inflict them on anyone. You merely share them and it isn’t an assault. I think you are the one person in the world that could say “I don’t like that” and it wouldn’t feel as if you needed everyone in the room to say “I don’t like that as well.” You’ve a kindness about you that allows for any negativity to have that sort of a bumper on it.

    Don’t judge your “big mouth” for it is nice lovely mouth that has said wonderful things that I find nothing but delight every time I allow myself to immerse myself in something you’ve done or written.

    I am thankful for your big mouth.

    LadyGirlPerson: Jennifer Daniels, Adirondacks, New York, USA

  15. Natsia says:

    I’ve always pitied anyone caught in the public eye, seems freedoms we, the lemmings, take for granted are often denied. Freedom of speech, for these few, isn’t. How many times I’ve put both feet in it without thinking what I was saying while having the luxury (and privilege) of being able to kiss the arse of anyone I’ve offended in private?

  16. troublesome1 says:

    I’m sure it was a piece of professional journalism on her part by getting everyone talking about what she wrote, which is why I think she did it in 1st place. I don;t agree with what she said.

  17. troublesome1 says:

    Stephen don’t be ashamed for being you. You sound like me though which is scary. I too say things without thinking or do things without thinking about consequence, your not alone. I’M cynical too

  18. Wobblesocks says:

    If I may be so bold, you simply need to let yourself off the hook on this one, Mr. Fry. Your ‘gronk’ — for lack of a better term — is far outweighed by all of your useful and caring statements made on the abundant cluster of other subjects. We’re similar in our enjoyment of talking, of communicating, and the joys and jazzes it brings our minds and spirits. Sometimes we all lay an egg. It’s because you care so much about people that you are offended by the notion that you may have yourself offended someone else. Never apologize for that — it makes you a better, and more human, person. Write a poem or sing a song — such are far better uses of your time than regret.
    P.S. In the cause of moving on to other things, I must mention that I think ‘The Hippopotamus’ is one of the best novels I have ever read. Period. Cheers.

  19. jenmass77 says:

    Anyone who is a small town hick or a famous person says things that they wish could be taken back. People get so frustrated or angry they blurt things without thinking. Unfortunately because you are in the public eye it menas that things can be said or written that turn something in to a shitstorm.

    All that one can really do is appologize and move on, hoping that in time things will be ok. Trust me , I too have stuck my foot in my mouth more than once.

  20. Robin Rowlands says:

    Shaved it too close and had nasty scrape with Iceberg.STOP
    Have made running repairs and am back in action – fully oprational.STOP
    The Artistic Mind….

    Robin Rowlands

  21. hairatwork says:

    when i say things without thinking, and believe me there have been many
    eg; saying to someone your wife needs a white stick and a guide dog later i found out his wife was blind……
    what else can you do or say to change the past…..
    i have found the perfect phrase…
    “oh fuck , shit , bollocks and piss.
    it has helped me out many a time, if on camera you might just say whoops, it means the same thing .
    hope this helps x

  22. Robin Rowlands says:

    Well Q
    We wait to see how quickly Joe P takes to realise that our little dance, is something different.
    We who are members of the rocketeers diaper club, know that “when you got to go – you got to go”.
    However for the moment I am waiting for the Universe to twist just so.

  23. random_bod says:

    Dear Mr. Fry,

    It is a joy to me that you are such an erudite humanist commentator.

    Most everything you encounter is recorded and commented upon, without guile or a vinegarey agenda.

    You appear to be a good man documenting what he sees in an accessible way. For that simplicity I am so grateful.

    Thank you.

  24. MichelleFrost says:

    Ah dear… another victim of the Fourth Monkey. ;-)

    Rarely heard of(ok, invented by me so NEVER heard of beyond my blog) the Fourth Monkey sits behind the famous three… with his paw/foot in his mouth.

    I’ve been a victim of the Fourth Monkey Tango (danced on one foot) all my life.

    Seriously… I suspect the most appalling part of being in the Media is knowing that anything you say can and will be held against you. I’m so greateful my clanging comment moments are usually shared in front of small select groups rather than the world at large.

    And so sad how the media always latch onto the stupid comment and ignore the things said worth remembering.

    Best Regards and wishes for a futute where more media time is spent on the other three monkeys. ;-)

  25. Robin Rowlands says:

    Well Step Hen,
    Life is rather peculiar at the moment – everybody is reading and nobody is reacting – funny thing that – most peculiar –
    and there I was hoping to wrap the fish and chips!!!

  26. Robin Rowlands says:

    Not sure how we proceed from here – carefully I suppose…
    Neither too fast or too slow. Certainly Christmas is a time for the family…
    Politics can wait for the New Year, a traditional time for making promises we cant or wont keep…
    As for myself and my family we will finish what we started and take the rough with the smooth…
    Not so naive or foolish as to think it could be any other way…

    As ever caught between common sense and common decency…

  27. Herring House Trust says:

    My comment on the politics artical shall be brief: Don’t beat yourself up Mr Fry, your’re only human we all mess up at sometime!

    Now to the serious business . . . . I hope that Stephen get’s to read the information below and can offer us some support. I will leave this letter in the hope that I can reach the real Mr Fry!

    Herring House Trust – Re-build 2010. Charity No: 1057387

    [Producer note: Please contact the normal way and not via this blog. Details are available in Contact Us. x Andrew]

  28. bb_mke says:

    It’s okay. Take your time. Do what you must. Just get your arse back to Bones ASAP. :)

    Bridget in Milwaukee.

  29. Flavia says:

    I suppose it is too late to point out that Auschwitz was put in Poland precisely because it was Poland. Let’s put it another way: it was Poland where Jews, returning from the camps to try to move back into their houses, were hanged.

    I am willing to bet that you, Mr. Fry, subconsciously picked up on a truth that is as ugly as the Holocaust itself; I am sorry that you couldn’t defend yourself better & had to suffer for it.

  30. libithina says:

    sorry Stephen but this comment was meant for your other post about writing your book, which I have now placed I mis clicked however as to your reference to ‘Big Mouth’ I endorsed and backed you all the way as to the distasteful Moir article and one can only hope that yes, at some point in time the writer may indeed revisit and ponder and search within .. as to you my lovely Stephen carry on having the courage to speak out and speak your mind, I salute you! peace out Lib xx

  31. hasyourmothersoldhermangle says:

    I ALWAYS say things without thinking. A lot of the time my words are well-intentioned but are received badly. People make mistakes and anyone who has read an interview with you or seen you on the old telebox will know that you didn’t mean to offend. Here’s a wonderful quote which I thought quite fitting. I hope it will provide you with some solace or at least raise a smile:

    “No one means all he says, and yet very few say all they mean, for words are slippery and thought is viscous.” ~ Henry Brooks Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, 1907

    Damn those slippery slippery words!

    All the best, Sarah in t’Yorkshire.

  32. Foody says:

    I can’t beliEEEEEve I have stumbled upon Stephen Fry’s blog!
    Can people follow this blog? I am looking for the word “follow” to click on but where is it?

  33. thinkman says:

    Oh happy day. It was just by accident (or good fortune) that I happened on one of my favorite people in the whole wide world – the illustrious Stephen Fry. Yes, this is indeed a happy day for me. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the duo of Stephen and Hugh Laurie… Let’s just say, “Way too many for a sane man”.

    Your Uberfan and fellow Apple Fanboy,
    David Garon

  34. tallshadow says:

    Hello fellow LGBT’r,

    I loved you with Craig Ferguson tonight! I needed that kind of show tonight. Craig has been getting too Jr. High dick jokey lately I wasn’t going to watch..then saw that you were going to be on. I know I’m not his demographic so I understand.
    This lesbo of nearly 51 has been a fan of both of you for years.
    Thank you for sharing your Bipolar struggle.
    I care for my 93 year old mentaly deteriating mom. We used to go dancing and she wouds say ” your club tonight or mine?” All the lesbos would adoopt her as there owm mom.
    Now, I learn daily on how to deal with her as her memory fades and the converstions change.Sometimes I have to say “I’ll be right back” so I can go cry without her knowing. Her humor still exists. I tease her daily especially while I change her. She keeps thanking me for helping her so I distract her with goofiness and impersonations of actors of the past and comedians she loves…I say…” you look marvelous!”..and she says…ohhh..sure…”. I am so grateful to have her still everyday. Crying is a good thing. I call it an emotional pee. “I pee therefore I am!”

    I look forward to seeing you enjoy many..many…more acting adventures.

    Love You!

  35. Matt Mosley says:

    Hello Stephen,

    If you’re wanting to see who Twitter voters are wanting to see as PM and which party is getting the most noise check:


    That is all.

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