Terence Blacker: Inside every politician lurks a red-top hack

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The Independent Online

A former minister of the Crown has been articulating his thoughts in the press about some recent sporting events. Referring to allegations (false, as it happens) that a footballer's girlfriend was, while he was playing in the World Cup, taking cocaine and in bed with another man, the former minister was "encouraged by a Sunday paper's revelations about Peter Crouch's girlfriend. At least she can allegedly score regularly even if he can't." Other members of the England team, in the opinion of the former minister, were "tosspots", "knackered" and "scramble-egg brained". Turning his thoughts to tennis, he welcomed the fact that the Spanish player Nadal was not accompanied by "WAG-style slagettes ... with their tits hanging out."

It is a sign of the times that this unlovely conflation of cliché, warmed-over gossip and leaden insult is not only accepted, indeed expected, in the media, but is expressed week after week by that famous victim of the red-top papers, David Mellor. Indeed, the next time a disgraced politician appears before the camerasbeside his luckless family, it is worth remembering Mellor's resignation speech of September 1992, in which he regretted the media's lack of "checks and balances and principles of fairness", and where he is now.

Of course, a chap has to make a living. Just because, when he was Minister for National Heritage and inaccurate tittle-tattle about his sucking the toes of his mistress or galumphing about the bedroom in a Chelsea shirt was published, there is no reason why a few years later he should not be writing the same sort of stuff himself. But this career change does raise an intriguing conundrum. Who was the real Mellor? The sober-suited public servant standing beside Thatcher or Major, or the shoot-from-the-hip columnist who likes to write about women "with their tits hanging out"?

In fact, this is probably one of life's easier questions. It is far easier to impersonate an homme sérieux than a prat; with the first, you merely need to don a suit and a serious expression and turn up at the Newsnight studio, whereas to be a man of the people takes real effort, and a sort of boorish courage.

Being in political life involves pretence, the impersonation of someone more public-spirited, solemn and morally correct than in fact you are. Some find maintaining that facade too difficult. When it cracks, there is a fuss and then, like a garish butterfly emerging from a grey chrysalis, the true person emerges.

Mellor is a football fan, bellowing his views as if from the stands at Stamford Bridge. Neil Hamilton turns out to be an affectingly inept show-off. David Blunkett is a crowd-pleasing controversialist. Cecil Parkinson is a slightly dreary businessman. Jonathan Aitken is a moral exhibitionist. It is not difficult to anticipate the John Prescott which will no doubt emerge over the coming months.

Although we traditionally want our politicians to be less silly, more grown-up, than the people they represent, we have also learnt to expect a degree of looks, charm or wit. An ugly bore, however moral, will never be elected. So, in a sense, public life does become part of the celebrity circus. It is no great stretch for ministers, when forced by circumstance, to skip into an alternative life of reality shows or rent-a-gob opinionising. They may have pilloried an irresponsible media while on the other side of the fence but now they can switch sides so effortlessly, it is as if there was no fence there at all.

A bit of stupid horse play

Spare a thought for the nation's horses. As the result of the BBC's irresponsible decision to put an assortment of soap actors and TV presenters such as Matt Baker on horses to bump around a show-jumping course on Only Fools on Horses, there has been a surge of interest from the public. According to the British Show-Jumping Association, 3,000 people have enquired how they can take up the sport.

Surely even TV producers can understand that there is difference between allowing celebrities to bruise their bottoms ice-skating and getting them to brutalise horses. Having watched some unlucky animal suffering between the chubby thighs of a ham-fisted personality, I was astonished that the programme was considered amusing. The animal rights movement has a worthy cause at last.

In Sam Shepard's play A Lie of the Mind, currently in an impressive production at the Battersea Arts Centre, a mother and daughter escape from their past by torching the family home. The force and originality of that metaphor have, by an odd coincidence, found echoes in recent news.

* A New York doctor, in the throes of a ghastly divorce, is thought to have been responsible for blowing up and utterly demolishing his $6m dollar house: he said that he wanted to turn his ex-wife from a gold-digger into an ash-and- rubbish digger.

On a more modest scale, a recent row between neighbours in Essex resulted in a two-storey house being reduced to rubble by a JCB digger. There is something unexpectedly liberating about these stories. Property and its values may tyrannise every aspect of modern life but, just now and then, the glorious, destructive human spirit will have the last word.

terblacker@aol.com

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