Saturday, 13 February 2010

Mirrors within mirrors of mirrors

This Sunday evening I have no doubt millions will tune in to see Piers Morgan interviewing Gordon Brown. The BBC have been playing the killer clip of Brown choking up just ever so slightly as he describes the moment in which his baby girl, aged just ten days, died in his arms. Already debate is raging about whether this is a cynical stunt played by Brown's exhausted media team, an unwise disclosure of private feeling, or a genuine ouverture on Brown's part. I rather think it is hard to tell.

There is no chance on the one hand that the interview is just some kind of sideshow. Brown doesn't have time for that in his current set of predicaments. No doubt the interview will serve all kinds of tactical purposes, not the least of which is to remind us that Brown has suffered just as much as David Cameron in his private life. We mustn't be too mean to him in other words, especially not at the ballot box.

But where does this drive come from for self disclosure? In a media-driven age the prurient British - those visitors at the ballot box - undoubtedly feel they have a right to know these things; indeed, they respond to being fed them by thrashing the waters all the more and yelping delightedly like blubbery seals. We saw as much in the recent John Terry scandal. Public appetite, let us not forget, is one of the images that emerges like a shard of broken glass from this media portrayal of Brown's domestic tragedy.

Brown himself, however, is between the rock of media exposure and the hard place of authenticity. For media exposure, demanded by the consumers of news, demands the authenticity inscribed in unselfconscious conduct; we want to know that 'they' are not hiding anything, or declining to unveil their secrets out of some form of outdated condescension. At the same time, the consumers of news cry foul if that authenticity is not to be found in the suddenly selfconscious victim.

But why? Well, we tell ourselves such authenticity is a sign of sincerity, although we then go off and admire the actor's art at the cinema without a second thought. Perhaps, on the other hand, the demand for authenticity - the demand for the victim to be unselfconscious - also arises because the victim must not be a reminder that the news consumer is in some respects a Peeping Tom. Nobody likes to be shown themselves in the mirror, especially not a mirror provided by a politician we don't like in the first place.

There is the remote possiblity that Brown has sought this opportunity like some venal, self-exploiting twerp (an activity one feels sure will soon become known as 'doing a Jordan'). But I don't think so. He and his team are merely dancing through the hall of mirrors which the media provide - the original reality-TV dance show - in an age where appearance must supply for lack of substance, where impression must stand proxy for judgment, and where we expect our mirrors to show us only what we want to see.

When Brown chokes up on Piers Morgan's show tomorrow night, he will be showing Britain to itself. My advice, therefore, is: don't be distracted in the days to come by the conservative rage over his sincerity or his cynicism. Marvel rather at the collision of appetites - our appetite for prurience, his appetite for power - which splits reflected fame into a prism that dazzles to deceive.

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