Mockery is like a runny omelette. Misjudge things and you'll end up with egg down your front – as I have frequently discovered.
A good (or bad) example was at the TUC conference last autumn when I was rude about a platform delegate for wearing an unusual hat. The following day, I learnt that the woman had been receiving treatment for cancer. Not a good day's work.
As an undergraduate at Trinity College, Dublin, I edited a satire mag. I'm sure we published numerous libels, but, happily, our victims never sued. They'd just come and clout us in the pub. One week, for some barmy reason, we thought we'd take the rise out of Third World charities. Our spoof "Sunbeds for Ethiopia" campaign hit the streets in the morning. That night, BBC TV news ran Michael Buerk's haunting report on the famine in Ethiopia.
At The Daily Telegraph in the mid-Eighties, I was handling a diary story about fatal smog levels in Dublin. "Soot to kill" may have seemed a good headline after a liquid lunch, but the following morning it almost caused Max Hastings, then editor of the Telegraph, to swallow his cigar with fury.
On the diary column we also poked fun at a local newspaper's mention of "Norman Croucher, the legless mountaineer". It was obviously a printing error. I mean, no amputee could be called Croucher, could they? They could. Happily, Mr Croucher proved to be not only an inspirational rock-climber but also a generous man. He forgave us; thousands of readers did not.
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