Q: Just over seven weeks to go before the General Election. Already there are a couple of media controversies, with Prime Minister David Cameron (pictured below) refusing to participate in a tv debate unless there is a seven-way format with other party leaders involved, and the Conservatives launching a poster featuring Labour leader Ed Miliband in Scottish Nationalist Party’s Alex Salmond’s top pocket (pictured further below). It’s almost as if the presentation of leaders in the media has become more important than the policies they promise to implement. Is it?
A: There is a kind of parallel Election in which the parties are fighting for supremacy in the media. This is the Election most of us will engage with, if only by watching tv, checking twitter and other social media, browsing around the internet and just looking around us at posters and hoardings. Politicians realize that nowadays, policies will be influential, but the impressions they make on voters through their public presentations are probably going to be more decisive.
Q: Wait a minute. That’s an awful indictment of democracy; are you saying there is a kind of political celebrity culture in which politicians try to attract our attention, entertain us, persuade us that they’re worth voting for and well … engage us just like pop stars, rock musicians and reality tv stars? Surely we voters are not so gullible to be misled by images. Are we?
A: “The camera never lies.” It’s a well-known saying, though not a very reliable one. Since the famous televised John F. Kennedy-Richard M. Nixon US presidential debates of 1960, there has been little doubt that the camera can overwhelm truth. Nixon held his own in the discussions and the majority of those who listened to the debates on radio believed he came out on top. But on tv, his ghostly pallor and jowly cheeks made him appear a less attractive candidate than his handsome, fresh-faced opponent who emerged triumphant in the election. At the time of the Kennedy-Nixon debates, the printed medium was the most credible source of news. Despite its domestic growth over the previous decade, television was still something of a novelty and lacked the punch of newspapers and journals. Since then, we have since grown evermore reliant on television for our political information, as we have for all kinds of information. Kennedy was the first modern politician to realize the potential of television in politics.
Q: OK, but that was the 1960s, before we’d even heard the term “celebrity culture.” Surely something else has happened.
A: You’re right: after JKF, the politicians who made most impact were the ones who made most effective use of the media. But it wasn’t until 1992 that Bill Clinton (pictured below, recently) arrived and decided that this wasn’t enough to emulate, imitate, or reproduce the style and manner of popular entertainers: politicians had to become entertainers in their own right. He was the first genuine celebrity politician. Clinton is a transitional figure, occupying a position on both sides of the celebrity divide: he had a successful political career as governor of Arkansas before becoming president. He cut quite a figure en route to the presidency: telegenic and good-looking, he also had the sheen of authenticity, appearing natural and relaxed on television. He studied the way in which tv performers established a rapport with audiences and replicated this quite brilliantly. Self-presentation became all-important.
Q: Of course, Clinton became more like a showbiz celebrity than he ever guessed he would be.
A: You’re referring to his scandal. I doubt if Clinton anticipated his own career would follow that of some other entertainers, but his relationship with one of his aides, Monica Lewinsky, became an international scandal in 1998, and almost ruined his political aspirations. Interestingly though, it’s added to his legacy. Clinton is not known for any single achievement, nor for one great defining moment that would linger in everyone’s memory. But he remains an exceptionally popular media figure and, of course, a very well-paid speaker (his haul in speaking fees since leaving the White House to $106 million, about £72m, according to CNN)
Q: Like Tony Blair.
A: Blair was, in a sense, Clinton’s most studious pupil. He mimicked Clinton in almost every detail. It’s possible that, in the process, Blair lost that touch of humanity that was so integral to Clinton’s persona, that is those aspects of his character that were visible to others. But his political record (three General Election wins) and his lucrative career after politics (the company he set up turns over £14m per year) suggests the project worked.
Q: Which I suppose convinced the politicians that followed Clinton and Blair that they needed to follow their example.
A: Barack Obama obviously thought so. Both his Presidential wins were preceded by stunningly effective media campaigns. Obama took the novel step of employing social media to engage with his potential supporters. This made him approachable and, in a way, genuine: voters felt they had an authentic line of communication with him. I think British politicians have realized how effective twitter in particular can be, though I’m still not sure they have grasped how best to use it to their own advantage.
Q: And celebrity endorsements?
A: Obama enjoyed arguably the most persuasive celebrity endorsement in history when Oprah Winfrey backed him. She is an immensely popular figure, but also one with a certain gravitas, by which I mean a weighty authority. I’m not sure if there is a celebrity over here who has that kind of influence. I mean, David Beckham is incredibly popular and can influence the way people dress and do their hair, but would his political views have any authority? Joanna Lumley (pictured below, campaigning for the charity Prospect Burma) has been very effective in campaigning for human rights and she is a popular figure but without influence across the whole spectrum. One thing is for sure: over the next few weeks, we’ll see parties recruiting all manner of celebrities to endorse them.
Q: So now showbiz values have penetrated politics and, politics is, by definition, a public sphere. Perhaps more public than ever … and more personal than ever, wouldn’t you say?
A: I agree: as well as being able to relay news instantly from every part of the world to every part of the world, the media enables viewers to scrutinize their political leaders to an extent unheard of as recently as the 1990s. The surveillance carried out by new media is more invasive and perhaps more meddling than ever. Celebrity culture itself is, in some senses, an accommodation of this, celebrities surrendering any trace of a private life in exchange for publicity. Politicians too have had to strike the bargain. They play by the same rules as all other celebrities. All of which makes the next few weeks very interesting. People may hate the way in which politics has been sucked into celebrity culture, but the effects are intriguing. Campaigns are personal, mudslinging is inevitable and bickering is bound to become nasty. But imagine how much we knew about our politicians in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s. Very little. Some might argue that all we need to know is how they intend to govern the country. Fair enough, but today’s voters have different appetites and sensibilities: we demand to know our politicians up close-and-personal. In seven weeks time, we’ll know a lot more about Cameron and the others than we do now.