Browne and Brown: the celeb connection
What links the defence secretary’s mishandling of the Navy sailors debacle with the chancellor’s fantasies of a ‘new seriousness’ in politics?
A tale of Browne and Brown: the ongoing furore surrounding UK defence secretary Des Browne, over the decision to sell the captured seamen’s stories to the media, throws some revealing light on prime-minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown’s recent attempt to distance himself from celebrity culture.
Recriminations over the sale of sob stories by two of the naval personnel captured by Iran are still flying around Westminster and the media. Although New Labour defence secretary Browne survived his latest test in parliament, mainly through a craven combination of apologising while denying that he was to blame, there are inevitable demands for yet more and further-reaching inquiries into the whole affair.
The question many still have trouble answering is, why on earth did they do it? How could the top people in the Ministry of Defence and the naval chiefs have got themselves into such a mess by first agreeing to the unprecedented sale of those interviews, and then flip-flopping as soon as the complaints started and immediately banning any more?
Partly it was because the authorities are now so far out of touch with the world where most people live: certain that something-must-be-done to show leadership, yet thrashing about without any clue as to what it should be or clear sense of purpose as to what they need to achieve.
But it is also partly (and this is just as much of a problem) because the authorities are clearly in touch with the contemporary world of celebrity culture. In fact, they have been subsumed by it.
So it was that, when the Iranian crisis turned into a humiliating episode for the British authorities, the military’s media advisers (whose influence is itself a sign of the times) made a knee-jerk attempt to win back ground in the PR war, by treating the released seamen in the same way agents would try to promote minor celebrities exposed in some scandal. You secure a high-profile, confessional, pre-scripted media interview to ‘get our side of the story out’, present them as helpless victims by emphasising their pain and suffering, and pitch for the sympathy vote. The ease with which the military commanders and government ministers initially went along with this scheme confirms that, far from being the reputed masters of ‘spin’, the clueless authorities today are themselves more often ‘spun’ in their desperate search for media approval.
The result of course was a PR catastrophe – made worse by the entirely foreseeable fact that, as always in celebrity interview auctions, those media outlets that lost out became bitter critics of the entire affair. Much of the criticism has focused on the money. Yet if you take that out of the equation, those interviews fit into a pattern of the military increasingly trying to use the media to fight its battles – from General Richard Dannatt’s published complaints about the Iraq war to the promotion of a Victoria Cross-winning army hero as just another media celebrity (‘show us your wounds’ he was asked on BBC Breakfast).
The difference this time was not only the appearance of naval personnel being prostituted for cash, which revealed to many the loss of the military’s traditional standards and values. The big problem was what the two main players, Faye Turney and Arthur Batchelor, said in those interviews – the way they came across as if they really were ousted reality TV contestants, each seemingly competing to appear more pathetic and victimised than the other.
The stick that those two have since received from other serving military personnel might have shown that a more traditional martial spirit is still alive within the UK armed forces. But the way that, as Brendan O’Neill has analysed on spiked, everybody from the MoD down to the youngest seaman involved immediately went into victim mode also revealed the extent of the cultural changes taking place (see A lean, mean victim-making machine, by Brendan O’Neill). We all saw how the media-centric culture of celebrity and tell-all-about-me self-obsession has now infiltrated into even those uniformed bastions of British reserve and the stiff upper lip.
Fade from Browne to Brown. In an interview published at the weekend, the New Labour chancellor and PM-in-waiting sought to distance himself from celebrity culture. Gordon Brown claimed that the British people were ‘moving away from a period when, if you like, celebrity matters, when people have become famous for being famous…people are moving away from that to what lies behind the character and the personality.’ Brown argued that, far from being interested in such ‘trivia’, people were showing ‘a new thirst for seriousness’ and a desire to see their leaders deal with ‘big and serious issues in a way that does justice to them’.
At one level this just sounds like the fantasy of a failed celebrity politician. Brown’s attempts to act the shiny, smiley celeb like Tony Blair have proved embarrassing flops. So he has retreated in a bid to emphasise his own seriousness and substance compared to flash Tony.
At a more important level, however, Brown is wrong to try to counterpose the trivia of celebrity culture to the supposed seriousness of politics today. The Iranian episode showed how celebrity culture is colonising the political sphere. After all, how do leaders like Brown try to raise ‘big and serious issues’ from global warming to African poverty today? Often by marching behind the banners of celebrity, in an effort to make a connection with an audience and boost their own standing. Remember how Brown the celebrity-hater called on everyone to stand up for British tolerance and anti-racism by voting…for, er, Shilpa Shetty in Celebrity Big Brother?
This is not, as Brown might have us believe, a case of serious politicians battling to be heard over the din of celebrity trivia. On the contrary: it is the absence of substantial political debate and principles that has created a vacuum at the top of politics – a vacuum into which celebrity culture has been sucked as a substitute for public life.
As I have argued before on spiked, celebrity has gone way beyond trivia, to become the focus through which serious issues can be understood and debated (see When celebrities rule the Earth). This is nothing to do with vacuous celebrities themselves, of course. It is about the emptying out of our vacant political class.
Thus the sort of elevation of emotionalism and the blurring of the line between public and private spheres that we normally associate with celebrity has now spread from heat magazine to the handling of a hot diplomatic incident like the Iranian crisis. That debacle was not just about Britain’s standing in the Middle East. The seeds were sown in the UK, through the celebritification of public and political life, and then exported to the Iraq-Iran borders.
Whether boring Mr Brown likes it or not (and he doesn’t), celebrity culture has become a ‘big, serious issue’ for democracy.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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