On the night of the Bermondsey byelection in 1983, I was working my first-ever shift in Fleet Street in the lowliest seat on the sub-editors’ desk of the Sun. The result of the contest between Simon Hughes and his Labour opponent, Peter Tatchell, was expected late, and two front pages had been made up to cover all eventualities. The first headline said: ‘Red Pete Gets Thrashed’, the second: ‘Red Pete Sneaks In’.
Win or lose, the paper’s take on Tatchell would have been obvious to any reader. Underhand, devious, Trotskyite and don’t get us started on the gay stuff. As a jobbing newcomer from Scotland, I was used to handling less malleable forms of news, such as the Aberdeen fish prices. Bermondsey was my introduction to the politics of image.
Version two of the byelection front page proved superfluous. Tatchell, battered by a deeply homophobic campaign, lost to Simon ‘Straight Choice’ Hughes, on a 44 per cent swing. Last week, 23 years after his victory, Hughes was back in the Sun, talking about his sexuality. This time, the front-page headline read: ‘I’m Gay Too.’
Once again, image politics were in play. Hughes had misled blatantly and repeatedly during the previous days. Had a less popular or secure politician told such barefaced fibs, he or she would have been torn apart. But the Sun, which had proof of Hughes’s contact with a gay chatline, chose to treat his forced confession with gentle derision. Barring further revelations, Hughes’s bid for the Lib Dem leadership looked safe.
No such charity for George Galloway, whose career seems effectively over after his bad week. The Serious Fraud Office is considering an inquiry into Iraq’s oil-for-food programme that could lead to criminal proceedings; the parliamentary commissioner for standards may dig deeper into Galloway’s Iraqi involvements.
But the media image police think of such grave matters as opaque and, like tulip skirts, a touch last year. What did for George was the behaviour leading up to his eviction from the Big Brother house. Wars and sanctions come and go, but Galloway’s cat impression will be stamped forever, alongside Fergie’s illicitly kissed toes, on the national cortex. His crutch-hugging red leotard will be remembered long after the photo-opportunity at which he addressed Saddam’s son as ‘Excellency’ has faded from public memory.
Better politicians than Galloway could have told him how imperative it is to invest in a camera-friendly image. Hence the £1,052.22 spent by Tony Blair on make-up between 1999 and 2005. While no statesman, however dandruff-spattered, could ever safely assume that electorates are seduced by halitosis, there is some anecdotal evidence that politicians are spending more time and money on self-presentation. Frontbenchers who once peered through iron spectacles now favour varifocal contact lenses. At a recent Whitehall reception, I met a woman who introduced herself to all and sundry as the voice coach of the host, a serving cabinet member.
Personal enhancement, though, is a side-issue. The humbling of Galloway and the treatment of Hughes are, in their different ways, examples of a more suspect form of image manipulation. They belong to what American social historian Daniel J Boorstin described in 1961 as ‘pseudo-events’.
Boorstin’s theory was that prosperity and success had led rich citizens into expecting the impossible. They wanted to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, greedy and thin, solitary and neighbourly. And so, like Napoleon, they began to believe that they could make circumstances.
When heroes palled, they created celebrities to replace them. When news ran out, they invented it. In the absence of any convenient earthquake, assassination or civil war, a PR stunt or movie premiere could fulfil the craving for events. As Boorstin noted, politicians bought into the artificial world. Franklin D Roosevelt could barely kiss a baby without a sonnet scripted by his in-house team of poets and playwrights. Senator Joseph McCarthy called a morning press conference to announce he would be holding another in the afternoon.
And plain Americans began to live, just as the British would, in a synthetic world, where illusion replaced reality. Boorstin, looking back on the half century in which America crossed the divide from daguerreotype to colour television, remained hopeful. With luck, he thought, the West would modify its expectations.
Instead, the illusionary society he identified branched out into PlayStations, podcasts, probiotic yogurt, plastic surgery, reality television, politicians’ sex lives, 24/7 news and audiences of millions in thrall to a fat old exhibitionist in a dance suit. All of Boorstin’s nightmares have come to pass. Not since the days of fairies and hobgoblins has society been so beset by myths. We may be turning into what Jean-Paul Sartre called automatons.
No society gifted with techno-magic is going to revert to God and crossword puzzles. And so Boorstin’s theory of pseudo-events still looks uncannily right. The paedophile hordes who were stalking our schools a few days ago have been forgotten; bird flu has not killed us all; nano-technology has not reduced the planet to grey sludge; the threat of terror has not justified the erosion of liberties.
Meanwhile, politicians are pawns in pseudo-events, programmed to live or die according to the dynamics of the instant sensation. Modern witch-hunts happen when a 21st-century news operation collides with ancient prejudice. Simon Hughes survived partly because he is a fine constituency MP, but partly, too, because the image he offered did not offend media sensibilities. Calling a gay chatline is OK. He might, after all, have been discussing proportional representation or Wittgenstein.
Mark Oaten, outed a few days previously, was unable to supply a suitable vision. Oaten was much less popular than Hughes and he was married. On the other hand, he had told no public lies. What killed him were two images; the shot of him having breakfast with his small daughters and the mental picture of illicit sex. In part, Oaten was the victim of a subtle brand of homophobia. The term ‘rentboy’ places the 23-year-old male prostitute he allegedly visited in an underworld far from the cosy flats the government proposes for female sex-workers and their respectable clientele.
The insults thrown his way – ‘depraved, dehumanised, grotesque’- are the vocabulary of the torture chamber, not the boudoir. Sex between consenting adults is, however unpalatable, only sex. Such condemnation would be less easily applied to heterosexual thrill-seekers caught deviating from the missionary position.
Worthier politicians than Oaten have been evicted, like discarded reality-show contestants, for sins that are forgotten and on whims sometimes too shameful to acknowledge. David Blunkett, for example, was lampooned not only for his private life, but for his blindness. In a post-privacy, post-moral and post-deferential age, politicians have no figleaf, bar their dignity. Take away that prop and they are gone.
The last illusion, and the most dangerous, is that society grows inexorably kinder, wiser and more tolerant, just as Boorstin had hoped. The truth is that we are, in some ways, more febrile and more prejudiced than ever. Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since Peter Tatchell, a fine and principled crusader, was defeated.
It is consoling to imagine that the hysteria directed at public figures dissipated long ago. But the world of pseudo-events was merely in its infancy on the night Red Pete got thrashed.
David Cameron will this week dramatically praise Tony Blair for his ‘profound’ understanding of the political mood of Britain in the Nineties, and make an audacious claim to be the Prime Minister’s ‘natural heir’. In a challenge to Blair’s would-be successor, Gordon Brown, the new Tory leader will portray the Chancellor as an instinctive centraliser and bureaucrat, and claim that only the Tories have the reformist credentials to meet the needs of the underprivileged.
In a speech to the Demos think-tank in London, portions of which have been seen by The Observer, Cameron will balance praise for some of Blair’s accomplishments with a bid to blunt growing criticism from the Tory right that he is becoming too ‘Blairite’ and ditching core Conservative principles.
He will use his most ambitious policy address since winning the leadership in December to argue that it was Margaret Thatcher and John Major who first recognised the need to combine a strong market economy with social justice. Cameron will credit Blair with a ‘profound’ understanding that the changes in Thatcher’s Britain in the Eighties were ‘irreversible, because people didn’t want to reverse them’, as well as with ‘making the aims of a stronger economy and more decent society most explicit’.
But he will argue that New Labour has in the end failed to deliver – and that the Conservatives now are in a position to do so. Blair’s government, Cameron says, ‘has failed to maintain the competitiveness of our economy, and has failed to lift the excluded out of the trap of multiple deprivation’. It had provided ‘neither economic efficiency, nor social justice’.
The speech will blame the government’s failure on looking for short-term, headline-grabbing answers to serious problems, and on reverting to an emphasis on ‘legislation, regulation and bureaucracy. That is the natural instinct of the Labour Party – and especially of Gordon Brown.’