Steve Richards: Two cheers for the new crying game

Emotional displays will do Labour no good, but humanising moments do have their place

Related Topics

When I got a call from a friend asking whether I had seen Alastair Campbell "losing it" on the Andrew Marr show on Sunday morning, my heart sank a little. Already I had read an account of Gordon Brown's interview with Piers Morgan, to be broadcast this Sunday, in which he breaks into tears when talking about the death of his daughter. My instinctive reaction was that this was getting slightly out of hand – Campbell losing it and Brown crying. Without a pause we had moved from debates about the deficit to a highly charged episode of Celebrity Big Brother, from statistics to tears.

Then I watched the Campbell interview and changed my mind completely. For a start Campbell's anguished pause, ending with a deep breath of uncertain outcome, was gripping television. Was he about to explode in anger? Was he about to collapse into a traumatised extended silence? In fact he recovered with dignity and continued the interview. But momentarily we did not know.

Interviews tend to be fairly predictable these days, especially in the run-up to an election, when politicians stick to a script like actors in a carefully choreographed West End production. Last month I saw two interviews that surprised me. One was with Peter Mandelson on Newsnight in which he declared with a revealing ambiguity that "the party" did not want the removal of Brown, implying accurately that a significant part of the Cabinet was willing to move against the PM if they had detected wider internal support. The other was the interview with David Cameron in which he announced a significant and unexpected change in his plans for spending cuts this year. Indeed I am surprised at how surprising the events of January were – ground shifting in some ways. On the whole though, political interviews tend not to go in interesting directions.

The one with Campbell was a reminder of the potential drama of a simple one-to-one exchange, the simplest form of television and sometimes the best. Like a skilful musician Marr allowed the moment to breathe. The silence was more revealing than a thousand words.

I can imagine what Campbell was thinking. "I cannot escape from Iraq ... this was seven years ago and here I am still answering questions on the dossier, perceived as a war criminal." On his blog Campbell wrote later that he was trying to control his anger. That was clearly part of it. There was Marr, political editor of the BBC at the time of David Kelly's death and the aftermath, seemingly still advancing the BBC view that Blair lied about the intelligence. There was Campbell going through it again, four inquiries later, the build-up to the dossier, the other reasons for war, the deaths that followed, including a different sort of death, the demise of Blair's reputation for integrity. He seemed anguished as well as angry.

Some bloggers thought the moment of drama was an act. If it was, then Campbell was not acting wisely. His performance led to another prominent slot in the news bulletins about Iraq and Blair, not what he or the Government wants. But he was not acting. He was being human. Sometimes this happens in public. A caricature is called into question. It happens also with tearful ministerial resignations – Thatcher in her imperious prime in tears over her son, and so, it seems, Brown breaking down over his daughter.

We shall have to await the broadcast of the Brown interview to make a decisive judgement, but my guess is that his response to the questions was genuine. The willingness to answer such personal questions was no doubt multi-layered in its calculated ruthlessness. There is an election looming. A book is about to be published that will apparently portray Brown as a hot-tempered monster. There are advantages in a few tears. But Brown cannot act in a way that Blair could, and Cameron can to a more limited extent. He is a curious mix of the devious tribal leader who is physically transparent. When he is miserable he cannot disguise the fuming melancholy. On the rare occasions when he is upbeat he smiles like a child who has won a race on school sports' day. If there is a quivering of the lip next Sunday it will be genuine.

And in quivering Brown will convey that, like Campbell, he too is human. Campbell lives with a partner who opposed the war. He is not daft. He knows the case against as well as the one he advances. But he is loyal to Blair and is passionately convinced that when he was prime minister both of them behaved honourably. A moment's pause in a TV studio evokes a more compelling and complex story than the false one in which a monster compiles a dossier about weapons that he knows do not exist. Similarly, Brown is a grieving father as well as a Prime Minister who shouts at colleagues and staff. His situation is more interesting when he is humanised.

David Cameron too became intriguing and complex as a public figure when his son died. The tragedy did not fit with the caricature of easy privilege. When politicians do not conform to type they challenge us. The breaking down of stereotypes invites a wider consideration of the human side of politics, the heightened dilemmas and nerve- wracking judgements.

Of course there are dangers of making too many leaps. I must have heard a thousand commentators declare confidently on the day that Cameron's son died that his experience had changed his views on the NHS. How did they know? Was there not a political calculation based on the perception that the Conservatives had lost elections because they were perceived as the nasty party? Similarly, Campbell's fleeting exasperation does not change the arguments against a calamitous war. Nor do a few tears from Brown remove doubts about his style of leadership.

The emotional displays will not do Labour's cause any good. They remind voters how long these individuals have been around, so long that they look back on traumatic events while still in power. But the occasional humanising moment has its place when political leaders agonise more privately over what to do with the ailing economy. To my surprise I want more tears and anguished pauses to accompany debates on spending cuts. There is a lot to cry about.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Photographer / Floorplanner / Domestic Energy Assessor

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Photographer/ Floor planner /...

Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Surrey - £40,000

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Front-End Developer - Guildford/Craw...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Assistant

£13500 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Customer Service Assistant is...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An ambitious and motivated Sale...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Whitehall Editor: The spurious Tory endorsement that misfired

Oliver Wright

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Steve Richards
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence