Dominic Lawson: Public figures don't stop being human

My sister, Nigella, copes with grotesque coverage by deciding that the person being written about is nothing to do with her

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Hath not a politician eyes? Hath not a politician hands, organs, dimensions, senses, afflictions, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as the rest of humanity is?

With apologies to Shylock's soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice, I offer this as an interpretation of Nick Clegg's much-ridiculed confession of membership of the human race in his New Statesman interview with its guest editor Jemima Khan; not just ridiculed, in fact, but excoriated for this response to her asking how he felt about being spat at in the street and having dog shit pushed through his letter box: "No, well look, I'm a human being, I'm not a punch bag – I've of course got feelings."

This apparently harmless remark brought forth a torrent of invective, from professional pundits (it's our job) and from the twittering public. The former tended to take the view that it was the grossest act of self-pity to blurt out that he had "feelings" about being the subject of abuse (whether or not transmitted in the form of faeces or expectoration); most of the latter appeared to believe a government which is cutting public expenditure is inherently vicious and unfeeling, and its members therefore undeserving of the slightest sympathy for anything that might befall them at the hands of the public as a result.

The Deputy Prime Minister seemed to make matters worse for himself by admitting, in an unrelated section of the interview, that at home, in the evenings, he likes to read novels and and "cries regularly to music". Somehow these two confessions were conflated by commentators into the notion that he cries over the hostility from the electorate– in fact he was merely describing an everyday existence recognisable to anyone with a sensitivity to music and the feelings that it can evoke.

Again, Mr Clegg had transgressed the new conventional wisdom that politicians are not sentient humans like the rest of us, being instead power-crazed automata who pretend to have normal emotions only as a ruse to fool the public into believing they care about anything other than their own sordid careers. The truth is that while politicians are indeed prepared to dupe us in the great cause of winning power, such behaviour is hardly inconsistent with membership of the human race.

The notion of such public figures as mere cut-outs, without the three dimensions of everyone we have ever met, is in part a function of the fact that for the vast majority of the public this is the only way in which politicians are encountered – as an image in a newspaper, or on a screen. This, they have in common with the entire class of person defined by the over-used word "celebrity." Such people exist in a strange half-life, apparently known to millions who in fact do not really know them at all. True, they can become the subject of infatuation by those millions, usually a highly profitable transaction; but they might also be hated with as much vehemence as if they had really harmed their public, rather than merely failed to correspond with some idealised form quite unreasonably demanded of them.

Martin Scorsese's 1982 film The King of Comedy was a brilliant examination of this phenomenon, in many ways prophetically so. In it, Jerry Lewis played the part of a television chat show host Jerry Langford, a man pursued by a couple of very odd celebrity stalkers in particular, but whose entire life seems to be a battle to avoid being devoured by a frequently jealous and possessive public. In one scene "Jerry Langford" is accosted by an old lady for autographs, and when he politely declines, she immediately screams "You should only get cancer!". This was something that had happened to Lewis in his own life: according to Scorsese, Lewis directed the actress playing the old woman, so that the scene most closely recalled the reality. We are left to conclude that the old lady would never have behaved in such a way towards a "real" person. Jerry Langford, being famous, had somehow ceased to enjoy the rights and privacy we accord to everybody else. This attitude is not merely exhibited by those outside of the media loop, looking in. Journalists are guilty – in the line of duty, they would argue – of exactly the same dehumanising process. The saga of the News of the World's hacking into the telephone messages of politicians and film stars is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

I'm sure that one reason – if only subconsciously – why those reporters thought they could get away with it, is that they imagined that the public would not feel strongly about the loss of privacy endured by the "celebrities", even though the readers of the News of the World would have been scandalised if they or their neighbours had been snooped on in the same way.

Indeed, I suspect that, if polled, the vast majority of people would regard the hacking into politicians' phone messages by the News of the World as a crime of no concern to them and even– if it had revealed something untoward – something of a public service.

This cast of mind was ingeniously exposed in the same issue of Jemima Khan's New Statesman by her former boyfriend Hugh Grant. The actor encountered an ex-News of the World reporter, Paul McMullan – and bugged the conversation. McMullan is heard justifying the hacking of phones of people such as Grant, as follows: "If you don't like it, you've just got to get off the stage. It'll do wonders." Grant: "So I should have given up acting?" McMullan: "If you live off the image, you can't really complain." This, in essence, is how people seem to feel about Nick Clegg's alleged self-pity. He chose to go into politics. In so doing he sells himself and his image; therefore he cannot expect the slightest sympathy if he has betrayed the hopes of voters who fell for the packaging during the election campaign.

In his interview with Jemima Khan, Clegg followed his apparently scandalous confession to having "feelings" with this insight into his present predicament: "The more you become a subject of admiration or loathing, the more you're examined under a microscope, the distance seems to open up between who you really are and the portrayal that people impose on you."

It is in fact an essential part of remaining sane as a figure in the public eye to do what Clegg appears to be saying, and decide that this portrayal is not really about you. My sister, Nigella, copes with her occasionally grotesque coverage in the press ("Getting much fatter!" "Going bald!" "High Calorie Killer!") by deciding that the person being written about, though sharing her name, is nothing to do with her, at all.

That acquired imperviousness is clearly a much better approach than to cry out: "If you prick us, do we not bleed?" These days, any politician who attempts such an appeal to a common humanity will muster as much sympathy as the demonised Jew could expect from a nation of anti-Semites.

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