Saturday 16 October 2010

A Brave Heart in the Dragon's Den

This is an account of another silly, throw-away remark made on Twitter that had unintended negative consequences. This seems to be happening more and more as the medium matures. Perhaps the most famous example is the case of Paul Chambers, who was arrested in January and convicted in May of sending a menacing electronic communication, which was nothing more than a joke suggesting an airport bombing. This is the case that moulded me into a free speech fundamentalist and all around civil libertarian.

The latest example to illustrate how Twitter (it seems to be this medium more than any other) is so misunderstood by both its writers and its readers involves Dragon's Den star and self-made multi-millionaire entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne and a young woman who made a silly joke.

Sharon Gooner (I think that's her real name this is not her real surname) never expected that she would become the focus of Duncan Bannatyne's ire when she tweeted the following: 
Duncan Bannatyne's wife is having an affair. He
bellowed at reporters: "You may take my wife but YOU'LL NEVER TAKE MY MEADEN"
Those who know of the Dragon's Den will be aware that Deborah Meaden is Bannatyne's co-star and fellow tycoon. Those over the age of 20 should also immediately see that this is a pun referencing a famous line from the film Braveheart. A funny joke? That's a matter of opinion. A bad pun? Also a matter of opinion. A put on? Yes, that's perfectly clear. The literal implication is that Bannatyne is simultaneously having an affair with his co-star, but the pun aspect makes it is clear this is delivered as the punchline of a joke. That she did not anticipate how this would be received (even that this would be received) is I think not in dispute. So what happened?

Somehow Duncan Bannatyne got wind of this tweet and he challenged its author, saying "Just so you know. If anyone believes your silly tweet & if it hurts my family I will sue you for as much as I can". This was the first communication from Bannatyne to Gooner. It's not clear whether he was searching for his own name or whether he happened to see a retweet; however, we know he did not receive the tweet directly as he was not a follower of Sharon Gooner and the tweet did not mention his twitter handle. It seems like a very strong initial response, a not very subtle threat of litigation. Further correspondence reveals that Bannatyne's primary concern was that people might believe the first sentence, the setup to the pun. This could have the effect of damaging his wife's reputation and subjecting his young son to needless abuse and torment. Well, I have to say that seems reasonable. Threatening to sue was a massive overreaction though. That was not reasonable, but I suppose he was upset and on the defensive for his family.

I have gone through phases when considering this incident. At first I jumped on the Duncan-bashing bandwagon. He's a bully. He doesn't understand Twitter. People are abusing Gooner, calling her "scum" and "attention seeking". This is like Cat-Bin-Lady outrage. I thought the joke sounded like the sort of thing Jay Leno might crack in a Tonight Show monologue. Perfectly acceptable. Twitter lets anybody be Jay Leno for 15 minutes. Then I began to see that Bannatyne had a point (though his abusive supporters did not). The context of the joke did not seem to make clear that the setup was a false statement. Why would Jay Leno crack a joke like that unless the first statement was true? In that scenario there would be some sort of current event that is then tied to an absurdity, which is the punchline. I consulted with a friend who is a linguistics expert and previously gave an insightful analysis of the #TwitterJokeTrial tweet. He agreed with me. The first statement sounds as though it is a truthful observation. Some other people I spoke to also admitted that they had assumed the first statement was grounded in truth. I didn't think Sharon's tweet amounted to libel, but I thought it was poorly executed and easily misinterpreted. This would not have been her fault as she did not expect any part of her tweet to be taken literally. However, I could see the potential for damage.

Then later in the evening Sharon began to repost some of her earlier punning efforts. I then became aware that there was an extended context that I hadn't previously seen. Here are some examples:
Sade has given up music to open an organic fruit drink bar in town. She is a Smoothy Operator.
Julie & Cal next door have split up. But he did break her white appliances a lot. At least her washing machine will live longer with Cal gone
A man got stuck up a ladder today by a crate of deodrant that refused to budge. Sure. It won't let you down.
A ferry company were so impressed with Lionel Ritchie's new advert they offered him a job. He is now dancing on the Sealink.
My mate tried to steal some of my treasured music magazines. Keep your friends close, but keep your NME's closer.
In each of these examples we clearly see that the setup to the pun is as much a put on as the pun itself. In the wider context of this string of punning, it becomes clearer that the reader is meant to dismiss the remark about Duncan Bannatyne's wife. This fascinates me, because I'd assumed I had the full context previously where I now know that I did not. These things are not always as simple as they seem. This makes me wonder whether Paul Chambers' tweet really could have appeared menacing to some reasonable person, though he clearly did not intend for it to be. How much responsibility should we assign to people who make remarks that are taken out of context? Do we all in fact need to be much more careful about what we say in a public medium with enormous potential for the masking of context? I just don't know. Let me think about it some more...


  1. As a matter of fact, Duncan's reaction disappointed me a lot. It was clearly an overreaction to an insensitive remark and I wasn't expecting that pettiness out of him. To file under: and I thought Michael Bolton handled a correct feedback badly...

  2. To see what's happening now, around 2300 tonight onwards has been shocking. Now i've read this post, gained some context, the fact that Bannatyne has incited some pretty horrific come back on Sharon is just disgusting. It isn't like a pun should be compared but shit from some coming out now attacking Sharon is disgusting. I hope Duncan is reading what he's encouraged right now and realising how incitement is a dangerous thing. A pun is a pun is a pun, not a reason to threaten.

  3. I think more damage has been done by the supporters attacks on both sides when they could have just let Duncan and Sharon sort it out between themselves.

  4. I think Duncan Bannatyne reacted without thinking things through. Thought he would have accepted he overreacted by now but he is still tweeting and clearly hoping his followers support him against the unfortunate person who posted the joke.

    For someone in his position, with his money behind him, his bullying tactics are a shame. I think the guy is insecure. He is entitled to not see the funny side of the tweet but he should have tweeted the person back and asked for it to be taken down.

    This whole thing, and his constant tweets about where his book is in the charts smacks of someone who feels very insecure. He's now threatening to leave Twitter. Part of me thinks he just needs an ego boost from all his followers begging him to stay...

  5. I think any reasonable person knowing the facts would see this as a silly overreaction by Bannatyne. By representing sharongooner's bad joke as an attack on his family Bannatyne, with all his wealth, twitter followers and media influence, has become the bully in this little story.

  6. The whole thing has been blown out of proportion. I think Duncan bannatyne has acted really childishly and feel disappointed by his behaviour. I didn't follow Sharon gooner but looked at her tweets and she apologized straight away when she realised that it upset him. The amount of disgusting abuse that Sharon has had is dreadful. Looks like she hit on a raw nerve with him?

  7. Here's a screenshot of everything that happened - yes it was a pun, yes it was a massive over-reaction and yes it was completely uncalled for (IMO).

  8. Any sympathy I might have had for Bannatyne evaporated when I read a later tweet of his. He had searched @sharongooner's timeline and read an earlier pun-joke, this time involving singer Adele. He again totally misunderstood the tweet and actually assumed that the tweet was literal and that Adele was @sharongooner's daughter! He then sent @sharongooner a tweet suggesting that "Adele" had been brought up poorly! This was at least equally as offensive as @sharongooner's original tweet. Also when lawyer David Allen Green offered to defend @sharongooner Bannatyne tweeted him to say that he was the "the kind of lawyer who would defend people who harmed children"!
    On another note, with regard to some rude comments twitterers have made about Bannatyne's poor spelling - I understand that he may be dyslexic. Perhaps he also has a further psychological problem that leads him to misunderstand people's motives and behave in this way.

  9. There are a couple of things I'd like to say before I go to bed. First, I now know that Gooner is not her real name. A gooner is someone who supports Arsenal. I know that now, whereas I did not before. I am from a whole different country, so I can be excused.

    Second, it seems that Sharon stirred it up again earlier for no good reason. She simply lost her patience or got drunk and lost her judgement. For whatever reason, she opened it up again. I'm not going to feed this any more oxygen. It's all got a bit silly now.

  10. Enjoyed these musings.

    I think it's a pretty sad indictment on our times that the humour in jokes is increasingly subject to explanations of what makes it a joke.

    If a joke's funny to you, you laugh at it. If it's not, you don't. Either way, it's usually pretty obvious (to most humans) when something is intended as a joke.

    British people used to pride themselves on having a sense of humour but this now seems to have been subsumed by the victim culture where to offend someone, or even risk offending someone, is tantamount to committing a crime.



  11. chortle.Come on people, in a couple of days this will all die down.Anyone with any sense will be able to understand Banantyne's initial reaction , after all the "joke" wasn't about him was it? Anyone with a loved one or a child , think about how you would feel if someone you didn't know made a joke about your wife/husband or child. He probably knew it was a joke.I don't really think that's the point.
    Yes the subsequent unsavoury goings on are distasteful,but even so, it shouldn't be forgotten how this happened.
    Lesson to learn here - THINK about what you are saying, whether it be to a policeman , your boss , to anyone face to face or something as throwaway as twitter/facebook. Too many people don't think before they speak.And that's why ridiculous things like this happen,and why i'm wasting my life commenting on it LOL.

  12. The Braveheart reference in the original gag is more relevant than may at first seem. It was on Film4 recently (7th October 2010 - [1]), and was trailed on Channel 4 as well as the other channels under 4's wing (certainly More4 where I spotted the trailer).

    The whole episode throws up more questions about Bannatyne, his attitude and his paranoias than I really want to care about. As for his threat to quit Twitter [2] - well it's conveniently timed, as he's going on holiday: "@Jason_Manford Yes I am very well thanks just chilling before my holiday starts tomorrow"[3].

    I doubt Bannatyne's story in this. He's chosen to become the victim, threatened to become litigious, and in turn stress a poor woman out to the point of breaking (as this evening's outburst from @sharongooner has shown). It sounds like a game he's played - pick on an unimportant member of the public, and see what you can do with them. It also tests his fanbase - there's 183,769 followers [4] - and some have come out in his support quite vociferously. Perhaps he was testing his true "twalue"[5]. Then go on holiday and return refreshed, and probably with his Twitter feed managed by his PR agency [6].

    - Telegraph TV Guide for 7th October 2010
    - Film 4 broadcast Braveheart at 9pm

    - FreezePage copy taken frozen from (much smaller size)

    - FreezePage copy again taken frozen from

    - I tweeted this based on his follower numbers a few hours ago - it will have changed in the meantime

    - I tweeted this, noting the difference in how the two most-followed Dragons were thinking about their Twitter followers today

    - his PR agent is named as "Stuart Skinner" of "PHA Media" on this page:
    - the link to PHA Media comes from that page

  13. I think this has all got rather silly and out of control. All very well to make a pun, but in a public forum, it's always best to make it harmless or, like the "Calgon" example above, about fictitious characters. Duncan is clearly being fiercely protective of his family and the hurt this could cause them - we all know how quickly tabloids can pick up on false titbits like this. I think it was a misjudged tweet by Sharon, and she should have publicly apologised immediately and put the matter to bed, rather than adding fuel to the fire.

    HOWEVER. I also think that the involvement between the two main parties followers is disgusting - I have seen some of the tweets directed at both Duncan and Sharon from "supporters" of the other Twit, and they are vile and totally unnecessary. I cannot believe that adults are reacting in this manner and am ashamed that people can get so aggressive.

    Leave Duncan and Sharon to deal with it themselves. I do feel for Sharon as it was quite clearly a joke that backfired, however I hope it makes her think about what she writes in public in future and leaves potentially damaging comments out of her "jokes".

    As for DB? Lets hope he enjoys his holiday and it's all died down by the time he returns. I very much doubt he approves of the tweets his followers are sending, it's all got way out of hand.

  14. Maybe I'm late to this party, not knowing either Bannatyne or the anonymous 'Gooner', & only stumbling on it because I follow someone who tweeted about it. But this is not in the same league as the #twitterjoketrial, which was one throwaway remark that criminalised an innocent man. 

    I've never seen Braveheart, nor understood the context of the pun in advance. And I consider myself literate and educated. 

    If I had come to Sharon's tweet fresh, all I would have seen was a gossipy tweet about Bannatyne 'having an affair with Meaden'. Even if I'd got the joke, I might still have seen it as a joke at the expense of a truthful statement.

    So it seems to me this was a clumsy joke that didn't consider the consequences. This sort of gossip, once started, is extremely hard to stop, and I understand why Bannatyne was right to be angry. It's not just damage to his career, but to his family relationships. 

    It's not enough to say "it's only a joke". As I said, I didn't understand the pun (and still don't, to be honest, although I presume now that it's a pun on 'maiden'), and it's unlikely I was alone.

    Next, Bannatyne's angry response DIDN'T say he was going to sue. He said that IF anyone believed the tweet and IF it hurt his family, he would sue. That seems to me a far more careful response, and reasonable in the circumstances. 

    Of course, it's an angry response, but it's a first response, a reaction. His second was simply to say she should delete it, which also sounds fair to me. 

    There has been unpleasant abuse flying around on BOTH sides, but neither of the two protagonists were abusive, it seems to me. Their supporters were, but my impression from Gooner's @ timeline is that the abuse was worse from Gooner's supporters. 

    Looking at Gooner's previous punning tweets, it seems that many/most are funny and successful, and I'll now follow her on that basis. But the Bannatyne one didn't really work and I think he was justified in being angry. 

    That's assuming, of course, that it WAS untrue. And that's the problem: in that last sentence I'm in effect speculating that it conceivably MIGHT be true, which is how damage can be done. 

  15. Andrew I fear you have seen this via the Bannatyne spin.

    The statement was clearly a joke to followers used to her puns. (Sade has not given up music and Lionel Ritchie does not work for Sealink).

    The conditional "If" in the threat was not a sign of a careful response at all, it was a logical imperative. The alternative would have been to say he actual was suing, something he knew he would not do. It was a bully’s threat.

    A reasoned response would have been to ignore, but if that was not possible to send a private note asking for the tweet to be deleted. It was not at all reasonably to attempt to frighten someone with a threat he knew was entirely empty. It just makes him look like an egotistical bully.

  16. Wow, what an amazing story. (great summary and set of comments).

    If I see a fight on the streets, I tend either to stand back and try to talk the protagonists round (and no, this rarely works) or I walk (run) away. If the fight involves some of my friends I have tried to get them out of the danger and go have a drink with them to calm them down.

    Yet for a Twitter-storm where two people (one a friend, the other not) are having a virtual fight, I somehow change my behaviour and wade in and insult the other party, in effect joining in the fight.

    Clearly this does as much good as joining in a real street fight. So I hereby resolve to abstain from joining in with these disputes.


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