Stan Hey: Nobody's words are now their own

'Most people don't really want to see Anne Robinson struggling for a put-down or George Bush gasping like a fish on a trawler deck'
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The Independent Online

The great British public's perceptions lay shattered yesterday morning when a newspaper revealed the shocking truth that The Weakest Link presenter, Anne Robinson, uses scriptwriters to provide some of her withering put-downs on floundering contestants. The all-powerful dominatrix image, with a tongue for a whiplash, does not seem quite so convincing when we know that a team of scribblers, stuffed into a small room reeking with the armpit odours of production deadline anxiety, are on full alert for the moment when the great She-Devil suddenly needs a quip.

In some of the reactions to this news, it was even suggested that Robinson had delayed one special edition of the show featuring stand-up comedians so that she could be serviced with apposite ripostes to their off-the-cuff witticisms. If we leave aside the newspaper in question's running campaign to "spoil" their former employee's successes for professional reasons, and take the accusations at face value, it has to be asked if people are genuinely shocked by the revelation that high-profile figures need other people's words to complete their images.

I would have thought that a public whose levels of media sophistication would almost certainly include knowledge of such technical aides as the autocue and the earpiece would be indifferent to a star's means of producing a smooth performance. The black-widow spider persona, in which Ms Robinson revels, hasn't really needed much embellishing, and one should remember that she was a waspish columnist and a winking presenter of Points of View long before her latest re-invention.

The clothes and the put-downs were just part of the add-ons that created the whole package. It could easily have failed, but the fact that the show has been translated into 60 or so international versions suggests that world-wide audiences have been capable of separating the ironic confection of the show from the technical sleights of hand that are needed to make it work each time.

Intriguingly, on Channel 4's Saturday night programme Top Ten TV Bitches, in which Robinson finished a clear victor, we glimpsed other versions of The Weakest Link, which usually featured a ginger-haired clone in black clothing. Apart, that is, from the Irish version, which is presented by Eamon Dunphy, who in media shorthand terms happens to be "the most-hated man in Ireland". This is a distinction he earned by criticising Jack Charlton's reign as the country's national football coach, and by arguing, correctly as it turned out, that Michelle Smith's swimming performances in the 1996 Olympics really were too good to be true.

Dunphy, a highly literate and articulate ex-footballer, almost certainly uses other writers on his version of the show because, and this is the genuinely problematic issue to these "revelations", nothing can be left to chance. Newsreaders are so called because their ad-libbed version of events, or personal takes on stories, would be seen by the broadcasters as a gross breach of the code between themselves and the public. Nobody should be surprised then, that the news is written by teams of journalists, scrutinised by an editor, then perhaps polished with a few personal flourishes by the presenter before being consigned to the unblinking eye of the autocue, from which no reader dare stray. Control is all.

It is the same, albeit far more serious, story with politicians and public servants. Sir Winston Churchill had previous experience as a journalist to deploy in the writing of his memorable wartime speeches, but he made sure that they were rigorously rehearsed and checked before embarking upon them. And even his often withering parliamentary replies to challenging questions, while seeming to be off the cuff, were, as his confidant Lord Chandos is said to have observed, "previously recruited and drilled, ready to go into action should the occasion for them ever arise".

One of the few areas in which the recent Tory leader William Hague was generally acknowledged to have succeeded was at Prime Minister's Question Time in the House of Commons each Wednesday afternoon. Instead of the usual Eddie Waring singsong rhythms, Hague suddenly had a cutting and witty edge, and even his begrudgers couldn't help but laugh. As we all know now, though, Hague was serviced throughout his tenure by a team of back-room gag-writers. Hague still had to deliver the lines and time them properly, but it underlined that the burden of political life is frequently relieved by the words of others.

The public may not find that this diminishes their perception of a politician, it being generally accepted that our rulers haven't the time or expertise for speechifying. Most of us accept that ghostwriters put words into the mouths of interviewees who aren't articulate enough, or who can't order their thoughts. However, the most outlandish element of this summer's fall-out between the English rugby player Austin Healey and the management of the British Lions was not just the timing of his written criticisms, released on the morning of a crucial Test Match against Australia. Nor was it the fact that they were ghostwritten. What was weird, and alarming, was that he hadn't bothered to check what the ghost had put into his mouth.

In these circumstances, it is easy to project the sort of chaos that might follow if politicians or broadcasters threw away their scripts and simply said what they thought in their own words. This scenario was envisaged in Paddy Chayevsky's film Network in which newscaster Peter Finch suddenly starts to speak his own mind on the bulletins, prompting despair and alarm among the producers, and a prompt rise in the show's ratings thanks to a public that is grateful for unfettered analysis.

Chayevsky's stance, as I recall, was that of a liberal satire, but if he were writing it today, I guess that it would be a much less optimistic exercise. The fact that our most acutely satirical broadcaster, Chris Morris, is so regularly hounded and criticised, reflects the control-freak elements that exist in both political and broadcast circles. There are plenty of people who would welcome his take on the media conduct of the so-called "War Against Terrorism". Does it bother us that the words currently provided for George Bush to speak make frequent mention of the brave Pakistani leader whose name he clearly didn't even know last year?

Yet Mr Bush's address to both houses of Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 11 September atrocity, was so beautifully crafted to his punchy but folksy style that it was hard not to admire his courage, tenacity and truthfulness. Here was a man who had been heard off-microphone during his campaign, rubbishing a respected journalist as "a major-league asshole".

This discrepancy between private and public speech is at the heart of a very modern deception, in which our own willing collaboration plays a part. Most people don't want really to see Anne Robinson struggling for a put-down, or Tony Blair unable to find the right piety, or Dubya gasping like a fish that has just been landed on a trawler deck. We may even believe that Osama bin Laden's video rhetoric is his and not that of a fundamentalist ranter on his team.

In general, we don't mind our style-setters and leaders might being less than they seem. We have always loved the Cyrano de Bergerac device of a person using another's word to achieve our aims, be they romantic or personal. The music and greetings card industries are testament to the absence of our own lyrics or tributes. Word power is our own weakest link.

stanhey@aol.com

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