Matthew Norman: Politicians see television as not-quite-crying game
Monday 15 February 2010
As the media-political class reacts to last night's interview by asking itself the only relevant question – how will it play in the polls? – a hybrid word suggests itself for the burgeoning practice of politicians using a media it often regards as hatefully intrusive as a vote-winning conduit for their grief.
That Gordon Brown was utterly sincere in not-quite-crying about his daughter's death is not in question. Yet plainly he agreed in advance to answer Piers Morgan's question, and may well have been coached by his lachrymal pit canary Alastair Campbell. The word in mind is genucism ... the display of entirely genuine emotion for entirely cynical political ends. The obvious template is Hillary Clinton avoiding defeat in the New Hampshire primary by not-quite-crying on camera. Beside herself with exhaustion and depressed, she wasn't feigning it, yet this was palpably laser targeted at the mature female vote which rewarded her with a startling victory.
Later that year, in the vice-presidential debate, Joe Biden latched on to a remark of Sarah Palin's with the barest tangential relevance, and not-quite-cried over the death of his first wife and their baby daughter in a car crash. It was a profoundly moving show of dignity in grief – oddly none the less so for the presumption that Biden practised it at debate camp - and no doubt the same went for Mr Brown last night. But as the bunker-dwellers fretfully await the verdict of the private focus groups and internal polling, there's a sense that something has changed. The decades-long amble towards an Americanised electoral system, in which television performance is kingmaker, became a forced march the moment the party leaders agreed to live TV debates. Last night, with the debut of private grief as potential electoral game-changer, it became a headlong sprint.
A story is born
What advice Deidre has for Mr T's onetime Chequers dinner guest Vernon Kay, below, remains to be seen. But all the best to the Family Fortunes host as he seeks to assuage his wife Tess Daly over all the lewd text messaging. That The Sun broke this story the day the Mirror serialised Tess's book The Baby Diaries – a captivating account of a phenomenon (childbirth) seldom experienced before – seemed an unusually poignant instance of Jungian synchronicity.
Vern's just feeling blue
Once the dust has settled, the episode may be remembered more linguistically than romantically. "Kay vehemently denied ever having had physical sexual relations with anyone he sex texted," The Sun reported, and that's a new phrase to me. Even a certain heart patient didn't say "Ah nevah had physical sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky." The precise meaning of the formulation remains opaque, but according to one leading analyst of showbiz mores: "It's this whole philosophical, possible worlds thing Vernon has going on. Try to think of it like Avatar but with Boltonians instead of blue people. Basically, Vern's internet avatar has done all this stuff, but the actual Vern is a family man and feels utterly betrayed." I hope that helps.
Tea for two
In the Daily Mail, I loved Victor Davis's charming piece, comparing the modern pursuit of torture with the more mannerly methods used by post-war spycatcher Jim Skardon, headlined "The spycatcher who broke our enemies the old British way – with charm, country walks and custard creams". I also loved turning the page to find Richard Littlejohn's lead item headlined "How should we grill terrorists – with a cuddle and a cup of tea? The crypto-anarchists on the Mail back-bench become more mischievous by the week.
As for Alastair Campbell, not all agree that his welling up on Andrew Marr's show confirmed Nora Ephron's caution to beware a man who cries easily because he cries only for himself. On Radio 5 Live, Richard Bacon gave Ali a spectacularly well-cushioned ride. As for Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow South, he went even further than Richard. "It would be ... surprising if Campbell didn't occasionally buckle under the tremendous pressure he has been subjected to," blogged Tom, "by ... the great majority of the media." Noble words, and chastened we all feel on reading them. "He's also someone," continued Tom, citing Ali's uncanny judgement of character as proof of Mr Tony Blair's good faith in Iraq, "who I don't believe would offer his devotion and loyalty to anyone without good cause." Aha. Two words on that. Maxwell is the second. The first you can guess for yourselves.
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