The Only Way is Ethics: Did I blow a chance to cure flu?

It would be po-faced to censor all jokes about the physical appearance of public figures

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The Independent Online

With so many awful things happening in the world, it seems slightly trivial to write about sport. But I go where the grumbles take me.

A reader last week expressed concern that a columnist had been beastly about Wayne Rooney, by passing judgement not only on his footballing ability but also on his looks (“King Edward-faced” did not, in this context, mean regal-looking). Comments on such non-football matters were, the reader said, “inaccurate and unnecessary”.

Well, on the second point, he is strictly right, if he means that the points being made in the piece were not absolutely reliant on an analysis of Rooney’s looks. As to whether they were inaccurate, that ultimately is a matter of opinion.

Poking fun at individuals ought to serve a purpose, even if the purpose is simply to be funny. But occasionally, it can become a default way to get a laugh. Teasing a person – especially someone in the public eye – about their looks, beliefs, mannerisms or just for being Nick Clegg tends to be an easy, if lazy, joke (as this sentence may prove).

There are certainly times when the tendency goes too far. Focusing on a person’s appearance can simply be cruel. But I do not think the column which was the subject of last week’s complaint fell into that category. Its author was mock-raging about the failure of his bet that Wayne Rooney would score a hatful of goals against Italy at the World Cup. In that context, throwing in a reference about Rooney looking like a potato seemed like a fairly mild way to achieve genuine comic impact.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. It is a good rule in life. But newspapers might struggle if columnists had to be perfect before they were allowed to make jokes or offer a critique about other individuals.

A criminal with a vital story to tell

Today we run extracts from The News Machine: Hacking, the Untold Story by James Hanning, deputy editor of The Independent on Sunday, written in collaboration with phone-hacker Glenn Mulcaire.

In case you missed it in yesterday’s IoS, where the serialisation began, it is worth re-emphasising that Mulcaire has not been paid for the publication of the extracts. Nor, in fact, is he benefitting from royalties on sales of the book. This financial point is relevant because the rules of the newspaper industry prohibit payments to criminals for information, unless there is a public interest justification.

We know some readers may feel uneasy that we have given Mulcaire’s story wider coverage. Yet we feel strongly in this case there is a public interest in bringing the information in this book to a wider audience.

Did I blow a chance to cure flu?

The introduction last year of an online complaints form has, I hope, made it easier for readers to contact us. Spamming is thankfully rare.

So what to make of this “complaint” that landed in my inbox last week: “I propose to make a flu vaccine based on my blood... I have super immunity against many infectious diseases.” It looks like spam. But what if the writer has the ability to protect us all? Should I pass it to the NHS? Or have I just poked fun at an individual for no particular purpose?