Terry Prone: I'm mortified for Derek but his comment broke a Golden Rule
YOU'D be half dead, if it happened to you. You'd be mortified the moment you realised what you'd done -- and every time you remembered it, for the rest of your life.
It was such a simple, throwaway incident. There's Derek Mooney, presenting the National Lottery TV show, all happy clappy good news for everybody. And there's a guest in the audience, gorgeous and a little exotic, because she's wearing a tightly arranged headscarf. That unusual garment catches the presenter's attention.
"Bad hair day?" he laughingly queries.
It later emerges that the woman is a cancer survivor, whose hair has been laid waste by chemotherapy, and she's reportedly upset at being asked the question in front of the watching nation.
It could have happened to a bishop -- as our grannies used to say back in the days when bishops were next door to saints. But it's amazing it happened to Derek Mooney, because Mooney has demonstrated considerable sympathy, even empathy, towards cancer sufferers on his radio show.
He's also sensitive enough to be hurt when Gay Byrne, visiting his afternoon programme just before Christmas, gave him a poke over his diction. He was genuinely bothered by Gaybo's criticism of the way he ends words (such as 'part') with a soft 'T'. But, because he's also a pro, he brought in an elocution teacher the following week, to examine the issue.
You have to figure that the adrenalin rush of going live stopped him thinking and jump-started him into taking a risk he now knows he shouldn't have taken.
Any comment on a woman's appearance or choice of clothes is fraught with danger on any programme. Men can take such comments, especially from another man. They may not like it. In fact, a lot of the time, men hate being jeered at by another man for losing their hair.
But the unwritten rule is that the bald guy lets on not to mind, and it happens often enough in real life for them to cope, on air. However, the unwritten rule for presenters -- male or female -- about the appearance of a female guest is: Don't go there.
Doesn't matter if the comment you were about to make was what you'd consider a huge compliment. Swallow it.
There's a school of thought which holds that if you don't want a reference made to something unusual about your appearance or the way you dress, then you should tell the production team in advance.
It makes sense, but it also puts the non-professional participant in a programme under considerable pressure.
They're trying to live as normal a life as possible, and alluding to something nobody may have noticed may make them feel different, as if they were looking for sympathy, when they're not.
Then there's the weird fact that KNOWING about something the guest regards as private may make the presenter MORE likely to refer to it.
Years ago, exactly a minute before airtime, when I was about to interview actor Ray McAnally on radio, he grabbed hold of my arm.
"I am a recovering alcoholic," he told me. "I am a member of AA. Do not ask me any question about alcohol or alcoholism. Is that clear?"
I nodded, dumbly, too surprised to argue. The red light came on and the interview started. I was totally distracted by what he had said.
Every question that came to mind seemed to have something to do with drink. Alcohol became a mad magnet, drawing me towards disaster, and it was a lousy interview as a result.
One verbal accident is not going to affect Derek Mooney's career, not least because it won't affect the sponsor of the programme, the National Lottery, one of the best-run State bodies around.
Nobody's going to stop watching the programme because of a single attack of foot-in-mouth.
We can imagine how sorry he is.
As Gay Byrne always said: "That's live TV, folks!"