It is a joke I have heard told 20 different ways since I first heard it 23 years ago. Often the location has changed, along with the nationality of the subject or his transgression. However, the ur-joke, told to me by an anthropologist in 1986, went like this.
A tourist is exploring the coast of a minor Greek island when he arrives at a charming fishing village, a model of contented pros-perity. Freshly painted boats bob at their moorings behind a stout breakwater. On the hillside opposite there is a handsome church, almost a cathedral. Enchanted, our traveller asks several passers-by to recommend a good bar for a drink. Each time he is advised that much the best place is the ‘Taverna of Dimitri the Sheep Shagger’.
He visits and in the course of a few drinks befriends the patron Dimitri, who is a charming, educated and accomplished man. A few drinks later, he feels emboldened to raise the topic of his host’s nickname. Dimitri leads him outside to the sun-bathed dockside and places an avuncular hand on the traveller’s shoulder. ‘You see those boats?’ he sighs. ‘I built them all myself with my bare hands. But do they call me Dimitri the boat builder? No. The church and the orphanage on the hillside. That’s my work too. But do they call me Dimitri the church builder? Never! I even built the harbour wall. And do they call me Dimitri the harbour maker? They do not. You shag one damn sheep...’
Like many good jokes, this one makes a good point: in this case about the amazing asymmetry that prevails when everything about us becomes known. On the scales of human reputation a lifetime of good deeds are outweighed by one second of folly. Throw a cat in a wheelie-bin and the rest of your life counts for nothing. Digital technology exacerbates this issue in multiple ways — it makes it more likely your transgressions are recorded, and it makes them easier to find and to disseminate. Once out, there is no power of recall. Stuart MacLennan, Labour candidate for Moray at the last election, was forced to stand down on account of remarks written on his Twitter feed years before he had become a Labour candidate.
How far do we go in pursuing policies of complete transparency? Last week I Googled a friend who works at the BBC and immediately found a link to a page revealing their annual salary and expenses. A salary scale might be reasonable, yes, but this seems a step too far. I also thought the Telegraph’s decision to publish every MP’s expenses claim was misguided: it meant some serious fraud ultimately received less attention than headline-grabbing stuff about Kit-Kats.
We now leave digital clues with our every mouse-click. Last week a friend of mine was mildly annoyed to find that, following his purchase of a box-set of Will & Grace, the Amazon site immediately assumed he was gay. In fact he is gay, but doesn’t believe his literary tastes should be defined by his sexuality. Half an hour spent browsing power tools failed to shake the site from its assumption. Only when he added The Autobiography of Geoffrey Boycott to his order list did things return to normal. Perhaps there’s a lesson here for William Hague.