That’s not what I said.
Journalists know this claim well. It’s what a famous person says when they are caught saying or doing something controversial. It comes in various forms, from total denial (“I didn’t say that!”), to claims of misrepresentation (“You know that’s not what I meant!”) to desperate clarifications (“That’s what I said, but it’s not what I meant”).
In these days of social media, smartphone cameras and the World Wide Web, it would seem incredible that anyone could say anything and then later claim they were misquoted or misrepresented. But it happens.
Former premier Brian Pallister was infamous for saying racist things and then suggesting that reporters knew, deep down inside, “That’s not me.” Or, put another way, "I may have said something racist, but that doesn’t make me a racist."
Attempts to disown statements are hardly a Manitoba phenomenon.
Last week, Damon Albarn, lead singer of British rock band Blur, got into a social media firefight with Taylor Swift. Which, as everyone knows, is a really, really bad idea.
It all started with an interview with the Los Angeles Times, in which Albarn claimed Swift “doesn’t write her own songs.” The reporter challenged that claim and noted that Swift writes and co-writes many of her songs. Albarn unloaded.
“That doesn’t count. I know what co-writing is. Co-writing is very different to writing. I’m not hating on anybody, I’m just saying there’s a big difference between a songwriter and a songwriter who co-writes.”
Never afraid to stand up for herself, Swift was — well — swift to respond. “@DamonAlbarn I was such a big fan of yours until I saw this. I write ALL my own songs. Your hot take is completely false and SO damaging. You don’t have to like my songs but it’s really f***** up to try and discredit my writing. WOW.”
And that’s when Albarn tried the oldest trick in the book for famous people caught speaking before thinking: he claimed he was misrepresented. Albarn apologized “unreservedly and unconditionally.” And yet, he also said he had “a conversation about song writing and sadly it was reduced to clickbait,” which was his way of claiming his comments were taken out of context.
It's not clickbait when you say something so stupid, it’s newsworthy. Then, it’s just newsworthy.
Albarn was not the only famous person trying to escape the truth last week.
The day after Albarn’s interview was published, two of the top players from Premier League football club Manchester United — Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford — were caught posing for a photo with Wiley, a British rapper who has been denounced globally for antisemitic tirades on social media. He has been banned from all major social media platforms.
On Jan. 24, the two footballers were enjoying a brief holiday in Dubai and appeared at a Wiley concert. A photo of the three was posted on Instagram but later deleted. The picture did not escape the attention of the Jewish Chronicle, which soundly criticized the two players — both members of England’s national soccer team — for associating with a vile character like Wiley.
Rather than owning the mistake, Rashford went into denial mode. "A picture has been brought to my attention which I understand now, given context, could easily be misconstrued,” Rashford told the Chronicle. “I would like to reinforce that I do not and will not condone discriminative language or behaviour of any kind aimed at the Jewish community or any other community.”
Lingard followed a similar strategy in responding on Twitter. "I’ve been made aware of a photo circulating currently, that can easily be misconstrued. I want to make it clear that I do not condone any form of racism whatsoever!"
To date, neither Rashford nor Lingard has explained why they were at the Wiley concert in Dubai or how both players — who have participated in various anti-racism campaigns — were somehow unaware of the storm surrounding Wiley.
Social media may have added fuel to this kind of media fire, but it’s hardly the first time that someone has tried to disown something they’ve said and done despite tons of evidence to the contrary.
In the olden days of journalism, famous people often had plausible deniability when it came to disowning statements. Particularly if the statements in question were not recorded in any way, were shared in a one-to-one interview, and only documented in a reporter’s notebook.
Not surprisingly, I tend to believe journalists when there is a dispute about the veracity of a quote or fact. But I also say that acknowledging that mistakes do get made, both in the interpretation and reporting.
How do we protect ourselves from misconstruing or misrepresenting what people say? Recording interviews helps. But there are other ways as well.
In previous newsletters, I’ve talked about my “three strikes” rule: if someone says something really newsworthy, I ask them to say it two more times by rephrasing the question. In some instances, I offer interview subjects a “read back,” which is an opportunity to review exact quotes I plan to publish. That way, if there is any misunderstanding ("It’s what I said but not what I meant") we can fix it before publication.
However, remember that even though social media has changed a lot of things in our lives, it has not changed our inherent inability to own up to a mistake.
Do you have a subject you would like to see covered in Not For Attribution? Do you have specific questions about journalistic practices or the business of news? Do you have specific concerns about politics or political leaders? Email me your questions and I will respond. Promise.