Why we should speak with care amid the clamour

By Moira Billinge

You may remember the television programme in which a famous person would be going about their usual routine oblivious to the fact that at any moment Eamonn Andrews, the presenter, would leap forward and announce: 'This is your life!' The startled guest would then be escorted in a bemused state into a studio, to be greeted by a packed audience.

Eamonn, and in later years Michael Aspel, would proceed to highlight the notable stages of the guest's life, bringing in the key players. Family members and friends and many who had been out of contact for years would be wheeled out to recount their memories of the individual, amid the inevitable tears and laughter at each recollection.

Participants would be sworn to secrecy but occasionally an entire programme had to be scrapped when someone inadvertently let the cat out of the bag and spoiled the surprise. At the peak of its popularity, there were over 20 million viewers. The anecdotes revealed about the individual were usually entertaining and of interest because most people would be hearing them for the first time. 

I doubt very much whether the same formula could be as successful today because nothing is secret or private any more. The minutiae of the lives of public figures and 'celebrities' saturate the media in its many forms. To compile such a programme today, when the life of anyone in the public eye – or at least the media version of it – is likely to be common knowledge already, would be a bit pointless. After all, we can uncover anything about most people, simply by the flick of a button – and, tragically, destroy reputations just as quickly from the relative anonymity of a keyboard.

Maybe the Eighth Commandment, 'You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour' should be emblazoned across our computer and phone screens.

The authors of the World War Two slogans that formed part of an anti-gossip campaign which the British Government ran throughout that conflict – slogans such as 'Careless Talk Costs Lives' – reminded British citizens of the importance of not leaking secrets to the enemy through carelessness or lack of thought. They would be appalled by the many avenues of possibilities for leaking them now.

What used to be known as village gossip was nothing in comparison with the global gossip that is generated with the help of today's technology. Very little of the information to which we have access is accurate, kind, wholesome or truthful. Much of it is malicious, mischievous, exaggerated, invented and distorted to suit the agenda of whoever is disseminating it. 

A story can change beyond all recognition as it travels the universe, bearing no resemblance to the original and becoming instead an unfiltered, unmonitored version of whatever anybody chooses to portray. Social media, in particular, gives a mouthpiece or platform to those who would use it to their own ends to promote civic unrest and dissent with impunity. The ease of access to the medium has diluted the sense of responsibility to fully consider the consequences of its indiscriminate use.

It occurred to me recently how fortunate it is that when we go before God on Judgement Day, He won't be relying on any rubbish information gleaned from (anti-)social media to determine our eternal destination. Laura Ingalls Wilder, born in 1867, was way ahead of her time when she wrote in Little House on the Prairie that:

'If wisdom's ways you wisely seek,
Five things observe with care.
To whom you speak, of whom you speak
And how, and when, and where.'