If hacks don't accept Blair's sincerity, they can't challenge his ideas.
Standing outside the Royal Courts of Justice delivering their on-air cant ‘live’ to the studio, or clicking the send button to file their op-ed columns, journalists who covered the Hutton Inquiry could barely contain their almost priapic excitement.
The delight comes, they imagine, from seeing a government implode, finally brought down by its own spin and obsession with media management. In this story the media are the good guys battling to set the truth free; the politicians, before they even take a breath, are the bad guys born only to deceive and dissemble. Now the goodies have finally driven the baddies to distraction. Alastair Campbell, the editor of Radio Four’s Today programme decided, must be ‘bonkers’.
Hacks say that the government is ‘obsessed’, or has ‘lost the plot’. How, they wonder, has the government allowed itself to get into such a fine mess over just one very early morning Today report and one teensy-weeny Daily Mail article? It must be madness.
When it comes to making sense of New Labour, journalists’ mistake is to begin with the assumption that politicians are always lying, obfuscating and self-interested. Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman famously claimed that, when interviewing a politician, he always keeps in his mind the question: ‘why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ For the journalist, politicians always have a secret agenda to be wheedled out of them, and that agenda is always something that is self-interested: maintaining power or influence, obtaining money, satisfying ego, and so on.
This is simply not true. The key to Blair and his ministry is that they often do really mean what they say. Realise this, and much of what they do begins to make sense. ‘Why’ hacks wonder ‘did they get involved in this mad war with Iraq?’. ‘It must be oil’, they and the conspiracy theorists answer to themselves, or ‘it must be a desire for a place in history’, ‘they must be drunk on power’. Could it not be that Blair and his advisers thought Iraq some kind of threat? Maybe they believed Saddam to be a very bad dictator? Perhaps they are committed to the ‘project’ of Westernising the Middle East because they think the ‘West is best’? Journalists seem to think all these explanations impossible.
‘Why are they so upset abut this Today story?’, wonders the columnist? Could it not be that Blair and Campbell were deeply offended? After all they were publicly called liars and it was implied that they tricked the country into losing its soldiers in a war. ‘No chance’ thinks the journalist.
Our culture, particularly our journalistic culture, cannot conceive of the possibility that someone in power actually believes in something and is motivated to act by those beliefs. Disillusionment and relativism combine to make us blind to the reality of events. We are disinclined to believe anything, and so make ourselves rather more gullible.
Moral or political truths, we think, are indistinct, probably non-existent, and in any case a matter of subjective opinion. The only way to judge someone is on their sincerity. So we can’t any longer distinguish between mere sincerity and actual truth. Just like the contestants or voters on Big Brother the media canonises the person who is ‘true to themselves’, doesn’t ‘wear a mask’ and is ‘down to Earth’. The greatest virtue of our time is to be ‘authentic’. This is why we think that weblogs are a cultural advance and every news report has to be accompanied by the ‘reaction’ of someone ‘from the street’ who can tell it like it is.
Because of this confusion of authentic expression with actual truth, we cannot believe in the sincerity of the Prime Minister, because we think that this would mean having to believe him as well.
We have forgotten that it is perfectly possible for people to be sincere about complete nonsense; to believe with all their heart that the Earth is flat or that David Baddiel is a funny and clever man. But sincerely believing these things does not make them true. Blair may believe most of what he says (about Iraq, the Kelly affair, the private finance initiative, modernisation and free trade) but his believing in them and wanting to model the world in line with them, does not make them true.
Perhaps we should accept the prime minister’s sincerity and then engage in an argument about the ideas themselves, evaluating the principles and assessing the values. But that is not something we wish to do any more.
So here is the pass we have reached. We waste money, time, newsprint and videotape because of a journalist’s dubious claim that the government lied. The whole thing becomes a judgement of sincerity and authenticity, not a judgement of the truth about Iraq, about the situation there now, or about what can or cannot be done about it.
This is the truth of the Kelly affair. Ours is a culture that cannot ask questions about its own rightness, and seeks only confirmation of itself in the comforting pretence of ‘being true to itself’. That lie is the only thing holding us together and we cling to it as the junkie clings to his needle – for we too are in love with our own inadequacy.