Tim Lott: The public loves a sinner, but forgiveness is another story

We forgave Kate her cocaine shame. Disgraced Barrymore is back on a wave of Big Brotherly love. Could Charlie bounce back? Not necessarily
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The Independent Online

I'm not a great one for predictions, but here's one I consider a no-brainer - given the avoidance of any spectacular gaffe on his part, Michael Barrymore will triumph in this round of Celebrity Big Brother.

But why? The public is fickle and this is a man who by all accounts took part in drug-fuelled gay orgies while a man who had been sexually assaulted drowned in his swimming pool.

Historically, shame and disgrace have been very powerfully destructive forces. In the past century John Profumo and Jeremy Thorpe, neither of whom was convicted of any crime, were wrecked by the tawdriness of their private behaviour.

More recently, disgrace has put paid to the career of TV presenter John Leslie and, for a while, sidetracked that of Richard Bacon. Jeffrey Archer is beyond the pale for the Conservative Party. Ron Atkinson, despite a distinguished, lifetime career, remains ostracised by the mainstream media as a football pundit.

What makes Barrymore different from any of the above? After all, other than Archer, none of them has been convicted of any crime. Public opprobrium at their moral laxity put a stop to them, and it is assumed that the public, both fickle and unforgiving, will put a stop to Barrymore too.

But the public is actually neither fickle nor unforgiving. In reality, the public judgement on public figures - what you might call the Court of Big Brother - is more sensible and more consistent than is supposed. And that is why Barrymore will be acquitted of the crime of not sufficiently conforming to the image that the TV programmers, tabloid newspapers and image marketeers demand of him. The rapturous reception the crowd gave him on Thursday night - generated partly, I am sure, by his very public penitence - combined with his undoubted talent and residue of hardcore fans makes it even more likely that he is only a few weeks away from rehabilitation.

A brief examination of the rise and fall of various "notorious" celebrities suggests that the public assessment as to who is to be left for dead and who is to rise again through Frankenstein devices such as BB and I'm a Celebrity... is a decision based on character rather than deed. It is rooted in what one might call general expectation of integrity rather than specific response to a particular act. And the British public in this respect is both wise and generous hearted - sometimes, but not often, too generous hearted.

To make the case, it's worth returning to the examples of celebrities who have not been forgiven. These include Archer, Atkinson, Leslie and Bacon, along with Gary Glitter, Jonathan King, and if you wanted to go transatlantic, O J Simpson.

Each of these characters is in disgrace - and rightly so. Archer was part of a much hated and generally corrupt governing party, and has a cold, arrogant and dislikeable persona. He is a stranger to remorse, and he is a liar and a cheat. Atkinson, whatever his professional abilities, could not be allowed in 21st-century Britain to call a black man a nigger, however jokily he may have intended it. Gary Glitter and Jonathan King have both been properly convicted of crimes related to paedophilia and this would put any public figure beyond the pale. Bacon was a presenter on children's TV - no one could expect to get away with hard drug-taking when you are expected to set an example to infants.

John Leslie, rightly or wrongly, is perceived to be a person of limited talent and dignity and is seen as a lech and general all-round sleazebag. And the public was wise enough to see what everyone knew on both sides of the Atlantic - that O J Simpson was a cold-blooded murderer, whatever perverse judgement the jury returned.

So I would argue that according to most definitions of equity, the public's judgement on each of these characters has been acute. More interesting, and more complex, are the cases of the notorious that have been forgiven. What are the criteria for the hand of friendship and acceptance to be re-extended to a perceived wrongdoer?

To return to the matter of paedophilia, one might expect that any tinge of connection with kiddy-fiddling would be enough to banish any celebrity permanently from the public arena. After all, Gary Glitter in the first place was not even convicted of any sexual assault, but simply of having downloaded child porn images on his computer.

However, another celebrity, whose reputation remains intact, also downloaded images of child pornography. The culprit? One of rock music's grand old men, Pete Townshend. His crime, in the first instance, was no different from Gary Glitter's. So why the relatively easy ride?

Likewise, Woody Allen. Repeated allegations of child abuse from Mia Farrow, and actually taking one of his stepchildren as a bride, seems to have done nothing to dent his reputation in the long term. How come?

The answer is simply context. Pete Townshend is a towering talent with a strong moral voice and a long-standing personal dignity that is beyond being easily punctured by allegations of sleaze. The public forgives him, in other words, because whatever he did - and looking at a picture, however obscene, is still not judged as amounting to a crime by many - he is generally seen as a Good Egg. In this perception of primacy of judgement of character over deed they are probably behaving sensibly in giving him the benefit of the doubt.

Likewise Allen. A global talent of enormous sensitivity and intelligence, the public finds the case unproven that he harbours in his heart some secret evil. Again, his character has acted as a buffer against sleaze, in the way it hasn't for Gary Glitter. Why? Because in judging, people tend to take the context of a whole lifetime into account, and not just instances considered in a void. In short, they tend to be forgiving of people who have led a life that merits some forgiveness.

This was not the case with Richard Bacon who had not built up a hide of sufficiently effective moral insulation for full rehabilitation to be possible. But still other characters, of no greater obvious integrity than Bacon or Leslie, have been forgiven their crimes or misdemeanours. How come?

The reasons vary, but they are all distinguished by a remarkable degree of common sense on the part of the public. Jonathan Aitken has been (tentatively) forgiven in the way that Lord Archer has not. It is not because his crime is any less, or his previous character any more admired, but because he appears to have learned from the experience and become genuinely penitent. The public notes this, and responds accordingly.

On the cocaine trail, Kate Moss and Danniella Westbrook have both been forgiven their flirtations with the drug because, well, people simply don't disapprove as much about models and actresses using drugs as the red tops desperately want them to. A huge number of them take drugs themselves (but not, Mr Bacon, in front of the kids) and an even huger number have inherited the great British "live and let live" philosophy that goes back at least to John Stuart Mill.

More perplexing, perhaps, is the apparent embracing of hardened criminals such as "Mad" Frankie Fraser and the Krays. These are amoral men of violence convicted of horrible crimes. Why should that fickle public be so soft on them in lapping up sympathetic portrayals in nostalgic documentaries and Guy Ritchie-style cinematic tributes?

For three good reasons. Firstly, the not entirely inaccurate perception that in those days villains largely knocked off one another rather than members of the innocent public. Secondly, the passage of time - all but the most heinous crimes tend to fade in the intensity of their notoriety as the decades pass. And finally, and most importantly, there is the age-old British sport of Sticking It to the Man. The gangsters were seen as working-class heroes made good by any means necessary. Yes, people got hurt - but usually only if they had it coming. (The attack on the driver in the Great Train Robbery was forgiven or ignored because it was seen as an unfortunate aberration in an otherwise non-violent scam.)

This in my view would be an example of the public being too good hearted - not only forgiving villainy, but positively glorifying it. However, one can argue about any of these individual cases at great length and take issue with the largesse or otherwise of the Great British Public. But it is my view that by and large, the records show that in these matter they possess uncommonly good instincts and these instincts will extend to the increasingly sympathetic figure of Barrymore, so publicly broken, so tearfully on the threshold of re-admittance to the golden circle of Celebrity.

So that leaves only the question: does that spell triumph or disaster for Charles Kennedy? The high moral reputation should act as the buffer; the transgressor is duly penitent. Surely there will be a reprieve.

No chance. Members of the British public are far greater pragmatists than they are moralists, and they don't like the idea of a pisshead, or an ex-pisshead who might relapse at any moment, leading one of their great political parties. They won't blame him for his weakness, or judge him for his vice. But had he not resigned, they would have seen him as simply being stupid or selfish. And that is neither moral, nor pragmatic, and thus, in the wise view of the great electorate, unforgivable.