The Week In Radio: An insight into the politics of spin and sin

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The Independent Culture

Of all the unlikely liaisons to bob up in the seamy celebrity soup that passes for contemporary culture, there is one coupling so mind-bending that even hardened Fleet Street hacks refused to believe it when it was first revealed.

I refer of course to the affair between decent, slightly dull John Major, then a government whip, and the former Conservative minister Edwina Currie. We were reminded of this on Politics Between the Covers, a choice of title that delivered exactly what it said on the tin, with plenty of breathless extracts from Currie's fictionalised kiss and tell, A Parliamentary Affair. Yet as Archive on 4 showed, Edwina's instinct in turning her secret affair with Major into chick lit – or perhaps that should be whip lit – was as old as Parliament itself. From Anthony Trollope to Disraeli, politicians have traditionally turned to novels, even if Edwina's artistic motivation – "If Jeffrey (Archer) could do it, there was a feeling that anyone could" – was not exactly Virginia Woolf. But entertaining though it was to hear Edwina relive those stolen moments, "We were walking on the wild side! We were risk takers!", there remained a deeply serious question to explore. When you fictionalise politics, what does that do to democracy?

According to Michael Dobbs, British political fiction underwent a Big Bang during the Thatcher years, with a host of Tory MPs like Douglas Hurd, Iain Duncan Smith and Ann Widdecombe, getting out their pens. His own House of Cards was inspired by what he called a "flashbulb moment" during the 1987 election campaign. "Mrs Thatcher was in the foulest mood I have ever seen her, almost uncontrollable with anger and pain, as she had a very bad toothache. I was in receipt of a large amount of nonsense from her and as we walked out of the meeting, Willie Whitelaw turned and said to me, 'There goes a woman who will never fight another election campaign.' He was saying all great leaders sow the seeds of their own destruction."

Mark Lawson, who revealed that his own script for a political drama currently lies on a BBC commissioner's desk, pursued the important issue with tenacity. At a time when the reputation of politics is about as low as Jordan's bikini-top, what is the effect of dramas like The Queen and The Deal, which put imaginary conversations into the mouths of real politicians? Questioned on this, their creator Peter Morgan, said: "Do I think it's a dramatist's responsibility to replicate things as they happened? No. Do I care? No. But accuracy and truth are slightly different things in that regard." Now some may regard this as artistic licence, but there are others who fear that for today's voters, the line between fiction and fact is already pretty blurred.

A perfect example of this came in the shape of Malcolm Tucker – the satanic spin doctor in The Thick of It, a human flame-thrower whose definition of ethics is, "I'm a man of principle. I like to know if I'm lying to save the skin of a tosser or a moron". What we love about Tucker is his sheer, savage, inventive bullying. The scorching verbal dexterity with which he stamps out the last flickers of self-esteem among minions and ministers. But if adults lap this up, and they do, how can they then tell children that bullying is not clever and not funny?

Radio One had some ideas. At the end of a thoughtful and impressive six-week anti-bullying campaign, a range of muscular 1Xtra DJs, who look like they have never been so much as cheeked, were roped in for advice on making yourself "bully-proof". People who bully you are scared, said Semtex. Never let a bully see the effect they have, said Target. MistaJam said bullies are jealous. Bailey said walk with confidence. It was rather touching that while the methods our children face, like text and cyber-bullying, may be new, the advice they get on handling it is as old as the hills.

I was quite excited when I saw Radio 3 had decided to devote a week to Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist pioneer described as a "hyena in petticoats" and an "unsex'd female" in her day. About time, I thought. Wollstonecraft's life was thrillingly dramatic – she was a philosopher, teacher, writer, friend to Thomas Paine and lover of Fuseli. She travelled to the French Revolution and tried to throw herself off Putney bridge when she was disappointed in love. The daughter she died giving birth to grew up to write Frankenstein. Her life story makes Tory party bodice rippers look like Jackanory. And yet Radio 3 squeezed all this into five low-key lectures at 11pm. What a waste! Where is peak-time, high-profile political drama when you need it?

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