Warning: If you read this post the whole way thorough, you’ll find me saying something genuinely complimentary about David Cameron, with no slyness, innuendo or barbed sarcasm. Readers with a sensitive dispostion may wish to turn away now.
Oh, and this is one of my absurdly pretentious long posts.
One of my tedious political obsessions is the way in which a politicians management of the arbiters of their era defines their public image. Which leads me to spend a surprising amount of time wondering how the advent of saturation media coverage will influence today’s politicians attempts to cast themselves in a flattering light. After all, we are seeing the development of a relatively small audience of hyper informed arbiters of political knowledge and a much broader audience with a wholly different set of interests and perceptions.
Rulers and ministers throughout history have used the modes of communication available to them to try and project their preferred image of themselves as benign and wise. They’ve use buildings, art, pilgrimages, newspapers, and every other medium you can think of in the service of their greater cause.
As a counter point to such propaganda the ability of arbiters of cultural and political life to speak out and have also defined our rulers. Think of the way Aristophanes mocks Cleon in the Knights or the way Gillray defined not just Fox, but an entire political party as being anti-British.
Naturally, for just as long as they’ve been abused and exposed by the irreverent, politicians have tried to control their image, directly and indirectly.
When we entered the mass media age, Politics was no longer a game for a few thousand, but for a few million, and the ways to reach that audience were limited. It became easier for some rulers to control their public image. Those that controlled to means of communication could deify or demonise.
At one extreme, the work of propagandists operating a centrally controlled communications system helped create the cult of personality. In democratic societies, parties and factions moulded the images of their leaders as best they could against the backdrop of a press that was highly partial. After seeing what a Goebbels or a Stalin could do, Western nations made sure they neutered the politcal power of television and radio, reducing the tools of propaganda to legally enforced status as mere observers of events, a lens which could only show what was put in front of it.
As TV became ever more powerful, this forced neutrality began to mean that managing a politicians media appearances and image could be crafted into a fine art, with photo-ops produced with the same attention to detail as Bosch might have given to one of his paintings.
I’m being half serious about that kind of attention to detail, by the way. Take one memorable visit during the last election. The imagery of the day contained: A helicopter descending against white cliffs of Dover on St George’s day, delivering a serious looking leader to meet young local residents bearing roses and a respectful crowd gathered in a customs centre to hear a speech. Figure out what the iconography of all that was.
Soon you begin to define a campaign not by what is being said, or how voters respond – but by how it is percieved by TV. In other words, a successful campaign is one that is doing well on TV, and a campaign that is doing well looks good on TV. The reverse is also the case. Think of the furore that surrounded Charles Kennedy’s bleary eyed press conference in 2005. Did his temporary incoherence over local income tax mean anything to voters? I doubt it, but it looked awful on TV and nearly totalled the Lib Dem central campaign. Another example – Howard Dean’s “scream” was unremarkable to those in the room. It was the microphone and cameras that made it outrageous and the constant replaying that finished Dean.
The rest of the media by this stage is practically forced to follow an agenda set by TV. The news channels dominate newsrooms, and their editors and reporters are given the right of first interrogation at most political events.
Yet that control contains the seeds of its own destruction. The same, perfectly designed visit I mentioned earlier contained an iconographical mistake that became the story of the day.
Reporters become bored by being props, so only sketch writers and cameramen attend campaign launches, turning a carefully arranged communications tool into a farce.
When it is only the sketchwriters who are cynical, the politicians don’t mind as the pictures look good, but soon the political editors themselves are playing on what they see as the falseness of each event. They’ve got a reasonable case too. When the objective of a campaign is to thrust an image into the mind of the voter, reporters questions are at best a distraction (and at worst can ruin your while message). So pulling the curtain away to reveal the levers working furiously feels a reasonable response.
Yet as reporters concerns become more focussed on the surface on politics, so are the politicians, and a system designed to allow politicians to speak direct to the people unfiltered instead becomes a feedback loop between a political and journalistic class always trying to gain the upper hand in their ability to interpret what is being said.
To me it seems that this relentless oneupmanship has become laughably meaningless. A man delivers a speech without a tie, or striding around a stage. We are told its significance in breathless tones. Another man speaks from behind a podium. This is interpreted for us. Soon everyone gets bored of striding around a stage, and doing so becomes a sign of weakness and imitation. So someone then delivers a speech mostly sitting down, or entirely in a question an answer form, or on youtube.
As this is reported, a rolling news ticker undermines this cultivated image of a responsible, mature leader by reminding us that he cheated on his wife, or on his expenses or had a drink too many last night.
Which leads me on (at last) to my point. Under such relentless coverage politicians cannot hope to be fully protected by image makers and consultants. The coverage is too insistent, the falseness of such a portrayal too glaring.
We all know that the visionary gaze off into middle distance is made possible by a teleprompter, we know the art of positioning yourself in the right place as a photo is taken. When David Cameron takes his jacket off to give a speech, political hands know exactly what he is suggesting by doing this (informality, readyness to get down to work, determination, level headedness) but also know that he knows that he’s projecting this, and that his doing so is a conscious echo of Tony Blair, who himself is consciously imitating Bill Clinton, who himself is consciously imitating the southern populist governors of his own political ancestry.
Because of the insistence and intensity of the coverage, the images that are part of the language of political leadership rapidly becomes hackneyed. When done well, it looks false. When done badly, it looks ridiculous. Produce a bad youtube video and you’re a laughing stock. Produce a good one and you’re a way too smooth archetypal politician.
My gut feeling is that both the strange irrelevance of the political coverage and the battle over politicans images that provokes that irrelevance are deeply unsatisfying to voters. With the debate couched in the internal language I’ve talked about, why should voters engage? Where are they even included?
As a result, while politicians and journalists fight over the precise gradations of their projected image, in the minds of most voters, the image itself becomes ever vaguer- a hologram of a politcian, a projection onto a cloud.
When the background is positive, people report general vague satisfaction with such a leader, but it is support based on little knowledge or trust, hasty, provisional and very definitely subject to change.
So Gordon Brown can move from modest, practical reformer to clumsy unfortunate. David Cameron can move from fresh faced young moderate to posh out of touch rich boy and thence to empassioned campaigner against the political class he himself has never ever been part of. These caricatures exist precisely in the world where politics is covered intensively and far more vaguely and less definitively in the world outside.
The most effective tactic politicians have so far used against current media environment is to embrace it. If you are to be a caricature – at least draw the picture yourself.
So while Cameron, Brown, Blair, Osborne, Miliband and so on define themselves as a class by a near unanimity of presentation (short hair, dark suit, white shirt, dark shoes) eccentrics and radicals mark themselves out as different. George Galloway affects the all black outfit of a an aging revolutionary lothario sociology lecturer, while Boris Johnson mixes the fat owl of the remove with Simon Scharma.
But these too are masks, albeit knowing ones. Boris Johnson is no more a buffoon than he is celibate. Geroge Galloway’s choice of clothes is deliberately radical chic. These self created caricatures might sustain for a media career, but they will eventually fracture in government. Already Boris Johnson is being forced to cut down on the crikeys. You just can’t play that role when you’re talking about knife crime.
At heart, I think we know our leaders are human, weak, bad tempered sometimes, tired sometimes. So far we cannot seem to accept that being shown to us. Or perhaps they can’t yet accept us knowing about it.
There’s a line in a Nick Hornby’s high fidelity where the main character asks the reader to list their ten worst deeds and imagine how others would see them if their sins were univerally known. Politicians are going to live in a world where they’re worst sins could be exposed at any time. That’s not a comfortable place to be.
So where can politicians go? Well, I don’t pretend to have an answer to that, but I’d want a politician who felt able to let the mask slip. Whose weaknesses and flaws were of their own admission, were coughed to as being real and hard to overcome.
Which brings me to being nice about David Cameron. I don’t like the man (not that I know him). I definitely don’t like his politics. I especially don’t like the projection of himself he puts forward. It’s false, self satisfied, over glossy. it’s a mask.
Of course, if it were our own dear Mr Tony, I’d be more appreciative of why it was being done, but still, I knew that the man you occassionally glimpsed in Sedgefield was the one who was Prime Minister, not the tanned figure on the TV monitors. Frankly, I preferred that.
So this morning I saw David Cameron off his guard, doing a radio phone in interview. He was clearly tired, yawning and frowning when questions were being asked. He looked a little irritable. For once, he looked like a person. (By the afternoon, the mask was back in place).
Other politicians have succeeded here. Ken Clarke, for example. I’m sure you can think of others. Yet I can’t think of many leaders who would willingly let the mask fracture.
In the end, I don’t think they’ll get a choice. We’ll see exactly what our politicians are like as people, and as one famous revolutionary once wished, we’ll see them warts and all.
That’ll be frightening for many politicians, but might be oddly liberating.
After all, we’ll probably find out that people don’t much care if you’re gay, or like a drink, or slept around as a young woman, or have embarrassing photos on facebook, or look rough in the mornings, as long as they can see you’re trying to do a decent job and doing it honestly.