by Stephen Tall on February 5, 2006
If The Sun were a politician, its breathtaking hypocrisy would have seen it chucked out of office long ago.
When Michael Barrymore walked into the Celebrity Big Brother house just three weeks ago, the tabloid gleefully jeered: ‘Shamed Michael Barrymore’s entrance was described as “repulsive” last night. The ex-TV presenter wept as he spent several minutes lapping up the attention, cheering and clapping at photographers.’
Last week, though The Sun shone on Mr Barrymore, as the paper tenderly reported the star’s tearful reconciliation with Terry Lubbock, whose son drowned at his mansion five years ago: ‘I don’t blame you, Michael’ proclaimed the headline. So what wrought this transformation in fortune?
It’s quite simple really: The Sun listened to its readers, most of whom proved to be a good sight more forgiving than their paper of choice. “I hope people give Barrymore a chance” – so said Kerry Daniels on The Sun’s online ‘Have Your Say’, and her views were echoed by many other Currant Bun readers: Amica Puri (“I’m loving Barrymore and so thrilled he got a good response from the crowd. Stop giving him a hard time.”), Emma Shaw (“You’re only saying that Michael’s entrance was repulsive because of the warm reception he got.”) and Ricky-Lee Brennan (“Barrymore’s a very good entertainer. Leave him alone. BARRYMORE to WIN.”).
Why does any of this matter? It’s not as if I’m breaking some earth-shattering news: downmarket tabloid displays double-standards – a nation yawns, “And…?” Well, there are two reasons why I think this item of emetic journalese is significant; and they reflect both positively and negatively on we, the British public, whose purchases pay for this country’s media.
Let’s start with the positive: the media is not as powerful as it sometimes likes to think itself because the customer is always right. It’s almost 13 years since Rupert Murdoch’s red-top rag declared ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’, following John Major’s unexpected victory over Neil Kinnock in the 1992 general election. Serious academic analyses have been undertaken in order to verify the truth, or otherwise, of this triumphalist claim.
Most conclude that its famous election morning front page (‘If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights’) was irrelevant, but that the constantly negative drip-drip of anti-Kinnock stories in The Sun might, perhaps, have swung a handful of votes. Yet the Tories polled 42% of the vote to Labour’s 34%: in short, any effect the paper might have had was at the margins – and the scale of Labour’s defeat was well outside that margin.
What might have been a more accurate summary is: ‘It’s The Sun’s Readers Wot Won It’. These were the floating voters – not tied to political ideology but looking for the party which spoke their language – whose loyalties switched to the Tories in 1979 thanks to the double-whammy of Old Labour’s implosion and the New Tories’ resurgence. Mrs Thatcher’s offer to sell them their council houses, her defence of the Falkland Islands, and her no-nonsense ‘Grantham housewife’ economics had turned their heads, shown them how Conservatism could appeal to ordinary people. Though, chances are, by 1992 they were Daily Mail readers anyway.
So, having patted ourselves on the back, and assured ourselves that we, the public, are more grown-up than the media sometimes credits us with being, allow me to set out why Mr Barrymore’s very public resurrection also shines a distinctly unflattering light on us all.
What has actually changed in the five years since the tragic death of Stuart Lubbock in Mr Barrymore’s pool? Nothing. An accident that was unexplained then remains unexplained now. There has never been any serious suggestion of foul play by Mr Barrymore; he was never charged by the police with any criminal offence; and they did not attempt to stop him leaving the country to pursue a new life in New Zealand.
Yet the cloud of suspicion has hovered over his head ever since. His supposedly dissolute lifestyle – the gay sex, the drink, the drugs – was blamed: surely, the press and public appeared to say, this kind of thing is just inevitable if you indulge in those kind of dirty practices? The truth was no longer the issue. Public and press sat in judgment over Mr Barrymore, and pronounced him guilty as not charged.
But now – after three weeks in Big Brother – we have absolved him of this guilt: he has purged and abased himself in front of our eyes for our viewing pleasure. Now we are content, satisfied that we have punished him enough, pleased that we have the power to rehabilitate a man’s life and career, and smug with our broad-minded embrace of a formerly debauched gay back into showbiz. The man we judged a sinner has repented: this is our doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.
This, it seems, is the new code of morality in this country. To pinpoint an individual’s weakness; to find some pretext to pass judgment; to leave their life in ruins; to assess how they handle their humbling; and then to consider if this merits their restoration.
And if you’re wondering if I have in mind the recent ‘scandals’ involving Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes you’re damn right I do. In neither case was there any evidence that either man had been at all hypocritical in their public life. Mr Oaten had advocated reform of the prostitution laws to recognise that prohibition cannot and will not work. Mr Hughes has always been an advocate of equality of treatment before the law of all minorities. So what exactly was the public interest in either story – beyond a normal (let’s not call it healthy) curiosity in other people’s private lives? There was none.
We all know this really. We all know that we have absolutely no right to ask of another person, whether they’re a ‘celebrity’ or an ‘ordinary person’, what they get up to in their private lives. We all know how we would react with understandable outrage if our employers demanded to know of us what we get up to in our spare time. We all know this. And yet…
… And yet there is something so irresistible about a good sex scandal. The issues are simple, they’ve been so well-rehearsed so often, and we can define our morality to our friends via an enjoyable gossip. We can prove ourselves to be liberal-minded (“to be honest, I don’t even read the papers these days. Why would I be interested?”) or gloatingly reactionary (“I think it’s disgusting. They’re all in it for themselves, these people”).
In either case, we can feel superior, not only to the poor unfortunate on the receiving end of the press’s big stick, but also to those fellow-gossipers who take a different view, be it liberal or authoritarian. Scandal is schadenfreude writ large, and we love it.
The media understands how symbiotic is its relationship with the public. They know they must throw us a bit of raw meat from time to time so long as it can be justified by some flimsy reference to public interest. And we lap it up, joyfully wallowing in our moralising cant. Mr Barrymore is, for the moment at least, back in public favour. We have, ever so graciously, forgiven him his flaws, and decided to celebrate them instead. The media and the public are utterly complicit in this unpleasant hypocrisy.
Which is why next week it’ll be someone else’s turn.