TCS Daily

'Nuts, Sluts and Losers' Grapple With New Media

By Robert Spain - January 24, 2006 12:00 AM

Recent weeks have seen two spectacular downfalls in British politics, both of which have been marked by an excess of chutzpah. The tales are not of sex scandals and prostitutes, nor of arms deals and kickbacks. They are more mundane stories of arrogance verging on idiocy, of pure self-confidence crossing the Rubicon of irritancy.

One of them involves the current TV series "Celebrity Big Brother", which brings together yet another collection of supposedly famous people no one has ever heard of. At the outset the house included models I'd never seen, singers I'd never heard or heard of, a basketball player who wasn't in "Space Jam", a disgraced entertainer who hasn't worked this century, an ageing actress who barely performed in the last, and, as critic Garry Bushell noted "a cuckoo's nest of nuts, sluts and losers". Quite where George Galloway MP, leader of the Respect party, fits in I am not sure.

Comment on his participation has focused mainly on two issues:

  1. Whether George -- now that I've seen him lounging on the sofa I feel no need to be formal -- should be representing his constituents in parliament rather than himself on TV. His constituents have launched a petition to bring him back to work, although should they succeed they may notice little difference: despite claiming some of the highest allowances in the House of Commons, data shows he is the 13th least active parliamentarian in the country. The only who people who voted less than him were the Speaker of the House and his deputies (who aren't allowed to vote), Sinn Fein MPs (who don't recognize Westminster's rule over Northern Ireland), an MP who died of a brain tumor, a colleague who died of cancer, plus the Prime Minister, who has more pressing matters to attend to. This is all the more galling given that at the last election his literature criticized his incumbent opponent (he moved constituencies when his disappeared in re-districting) for not working hard enough -- claiming she was 49th least active. In fairness, George does score slightly higher when using different measures, but there are 646 constituencies in Britain!

  1. Whether it is appropriate, for whatever justification, to have a politician on "Big Brother".

George's justifications, also twofold, were:

  1. To raise money for Interpal, a Palestinian aid charity. NatWest is being sued in the US over allegations that the bank transferred money from Interpal to Hamas, whose activities include terrorism. (I ought to mention here that the Charity Commission has investigated Interpal over such allegations and found no evidence and that the charity recently received an apology from a former employer of mine, for an incident that occurred outside my term of employment.)

  1. To "attempt to connect with the politically untouched"

The second of each list are somewhat congruent. As Zoe Williams noted in The Guardian, there seems to be a belief that because more young people vote on "Big Brother" than general elections, politicians should appear on "Big Brother". This is a view George explicitly endorses. Yet it is not particularly persuasive. As Williams argued:

"I've been to Sainsbury's more often than I've been on a protest march; it doesn't follow that I will only turn up to a march if someone along the route will sell me tomatoes on a two-for-one offer."

Moreover, the Power Inquiry, currently investigating the decline in electoral participation, has not identified presence on junk TV shows as any form of panacea. Finally, it is not clear at all that more young people vote for reality TV contestants than for political parties. Besides, this has already been tried. The winner of the "Vote for me" series, a "reality" style show where the winner stood for Parliament, got just 153 votes -- less than one 300th of the votes cast. And he was standing against the much reviled leader of the Conservative Party, Michael Howard.

The second fall of late was that of the leader of Britain's (usually) third party, the Liberal Democrats. Charles Kennedy was forced to resign after eventually admitting that he had a drink problem. His colleagues, having given him ample opportunity to seek help without -- unusually for politicians -- continually briefing against him, finally refused to serve under his leadership. The chutzpah here is not so much that he had previously denied having a drinking problem, nor that in his admission the dates he gave do not quite add up, but that he seemed to think if he stopped lying about his alcoholism, he would retain the party leadership.

Ultimately, this is where the problems for today's public figures lie: the advent of new media, and politicians' attempts to harness them. In 2004 Howard Dean (or rather, his campaign manager Joe Trippi) demonstrated that the internet could be used for effective political fundraising. Although most of the electorate only learned of it through newspapers, in Britain's 2001 general election, "New" Labour set two firsts: the first electoral pledge sent by text message, and thus the first texted pledge to be broken. Then there is Tony Blair's embarrassing video/podcast which was only noteworthy for the Kremlinological analysis contained in the regular media, looking for clues as to when he will resign.

Charles Kennedy and George Galloway tried similar methods. Kennedy, also known as Chat Show Charlie, gained power with help from his appearances as a guest on a televised comedy news quiz show. Between this and his opposition to the Iraq war, he felt he had such stature that his foibles would be forgiven through the liberalism of members of his party. He thus appeared to consider himself above the criticism of the traditional media, who had clamored so often for resignations in the past. He was wrong.

George Galloway wanted to bring his "message" to a brand new audience that he had not seen sitting in his audiences. On doing so he discovered that this was because they were not so interested in them in the first place. Channel 4 has declined to broadcast his political views in their daily highlights compilation (full live coverage is only available to people with cable/digital/satellite TV), leading to complaints of censorship from his aides and retorts from Channel 4 that he was aware in advance that broadcasting restrictions would prevent him from being given a soapbox to preach from. It seems he failed to understand this.

His attempts to connect with the "youth" on "Big Brother" similarly showed that he failed to understand them. At first he was a significant cause of generational conflict within the house, although he has transformed this into a role as a father figure. But on a more basic level, he demonstrated before going into the house that he did not understand the rules of the game, saying:

"More young people vote during 'Big Brother' than in the general election. I hope they'll all be voting for me over the next few weeks."

He did not seem to appreciate that (until the final round) getting more votes is a bad thing -- it means you're evicted. While in the house "Big Brother" has chided him for discussing eviction nominations with other contestants - a serious breach of the rules.

The lesson from all this is not that new media cannot be put to politicians' advantage, but that new media are not yet ready to fully replace the old. In 2001 Labour won regardless of text messages (deservedly) making fun of Conservative party leader William Hague's baseball cap -- anyone who could understand "d:0 WUCIWUG#:-0 VTE LBR 2MORO" probably wasn't old or of sound mind enough to vote. And by the time they are, the technology won't be new anymore.

As a postscript I must confess that at the time of writing George is still in the house and has not, in fact, fallen. But the lesson remains.

Robert Spain is a writer living in Europe.

TCS Daily Archives