Beautiful or not, we should never surrender to the image police

Scorn the squeamish and let even those with the unstylish look be seen
Click to follow
The Independent Online
SORRY, but I'm with Rupert Murdoch. There are certain things that ought not to be allowed into print. Mr Murdoch is, I think, showing a proper respect for the feelings of certain groups of senior citizens in the Republic of China by protecting them from the contents of Chris Patten's memoirs. Who knows what health risks there might be in exposure to criticism? After all, the poor dears aren't used to it. At the very least, some publications should carry a health warning, or the legend "THIS BOOK CONTAINS DANGEROUS THOUGHTS" or some such. Or, in the case of the London Evening Standard two days ago, there might be an age certificate, rather like a horror movie.

Jocelynne Wildenstein - the Bride of Wildenstein as she should be known - is an awful warning of the dangers of cosmetic surgery. This is the lady who claimed that she had been so pampered by her billionaire husband that she did not know how to boil water or to make toast. After finding her husband in bed with a young woman at the family's New York home, she sued for divorce and this week found herself on the right end of a maintenance order, which will give her an allowance of more than a million pounds a year, a chateau outside Paris and a huge ranch in Kenya. What her husband won't have to pay for - and there is justice in this - is the regular cosmetic surgery that Mrs Wildenstein indulges in, rather as other women have their legs waxed. What no one seems to have shared with her is the fact that the operations have left her with the kind of face normally found on the side of medieval cathedrals. She is now a grotesque.

She is also a great newspaper story, and she knows it. Mrs Wildenstein evidently does not know that her cosmetic surgeon has the most bizarre sense of humour in New York; she is so proud of his work that she provides publicity material posed in classic sex-kitten mode.

A splendid example appeared in Thursday's Standard, on page three (where else?); and coming upon it unprepared, would have left readers gasping. If the newspaper's editor, in a fit of liberal generosity allowed his staff to run such pictures he should at least have the decency to put a warning on the front page, just as radio producers must run a warning about strong language ahead of their programmes, or television companies do in the case of disturbing images. There could have been a small box that told us that Page Three carries an image that make cause distress to children and people of a sensitive disposition. I would have turned straight to pages four and five, since this describes me precisely.

You may say that people in glass houses should not throw stones. Fair enough; but complain when you see my face to those for whom I work. You could also argue that beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that I am promoting a profoundly lookist viewpoint. I reject the charge; I can claim enough hours on the front line against prejudice of various kinds not to have to answer to the charge of bigotry. I would, however, acknowledge that the sort of scheme I have in mind would be hard to police.

The judgement about who is truly frightening would undoubtedly be subjective. For example, I gather the popular vote would put Robin Cook and Andrew Neil on the radio, but not TV; I don't see why myself. Yet I have never quite understood how ITV was allowed to expose children to the vast and menacing bulk of Roger Cook before the watershed.

There are good reasons why we should sometimes be confronted with non- standard features. I would also argue that beauty cannot be reduced to a pure matter of the right kind of skin, symmetrical features or any combination of hair, lips and eyes. It is also a matter of feel. In Simon Weston, the soldier who suffered multiple burns in the Falklands conflict, we can see the nobility and courage in his wrecked face and body; the reconstruction work he has undergone have added to our admiration for him.

This is not about standard norms; it is about fitness for purpose.

Perhaps the way to deal with this is to do what governments always do with ticklish issues about which the public cares; establish a quango. It could be called the Public Acceptability Commission, and it could have an Ugliness Code which defines who should be allowed to appear in which media, with or without warnings. It would have the same status as the CRE or the EOC, and have some responsibility for ensuring that people were not alarmed by unwarranted ugliness, whilst ensuring that there was no unjustified discrimination against the facially challenged.

It would be a difficult job. TV is a medium whose principal purpose is to entertain. Does that mean that TV producers should be allowed to discriminate against the facially challenged? If not, what excuse would there be to turn down Martin Amis as presenter of book programmes? Some people, for example are said to have faces perfect for radio, but the public confounds the rankings again and again. So much has been said about Anne Widdecombe that you would imagine that she should be a prime candidate for gargoyle stakes; yet she is now emerging as the Cuddly Party's pin-up, with her own TV show. On the other hand, there is Peter Mandelson, who is undeniably good-looking, charming , and as I have reported before, good with children, yet has become the figure with whom some parents (admittedly mostly Labour MPs) frighten their unruly offspring. He himself acknowledged as much at the What The Papers Say awards last week. Despite his success in getting us to vote for his boss, his media appearances merely seem to turn people against him. The putative Public Acceptability Commission would be forced to issue a non-appearance notice against Mandelson, whilst promoting Widdecombe as an example of the way in which the facially challenged can overome prejudice and discrimination.

My own reputation has been immeasurably damaged by the several attempts that I have made to get the political classes not to be prejudiced against those who seem less than cuddly on TV. My efforts on behalf of the Minister Without Portfolio should have been seen as just another unpopular cause championed by someone addicted to causes. Instead it has given rise to a rumour that I hope to enter politics as a Mandelson protege. Besides the fact that this is simply not true, would anyone with any serious ambition really associate themselves with someone who needs the protection of the Public Appearance Commission? I think not.