Blair's slaggy prolespeak

Piers Morgan, former editor of the main popular paper of the left, regards politics and life as showbiz. And the politicians let him get away with it
June 18, 2005
The Insider by John Lloyd
(Ebury Press, £17.99)

The diaries kept by Piers Morgan when he was editor of the Daily Mirror (1995-2004) comprise one of the most revealing narratives on the nature of power and the media in modern Britain. Morgan made his name, appropriately enough, as a showbusiness columnist on the Sun, and in 1994, at the age of just 28, became editor of the News of the World, before being offered the Mirror job a year later. While his book often reflects badly on contemporary politicians—overwhelmingly the leadership of the New Labour government—it is also devastating about the popular media.

Some of that is what you would expect: vast expenses paying for high-class eating and drinking bouts, including a party, thrown by Marco Pierre White, in which a bottle of Chateau d'Ychem 1911, priced at £11,000, is drunk "like lemonade"; enormous sums paid to celebrities for their confessions and gossip; relationships with the monarchy which reveal a mixture of fawning on, cheekiness towards and betrayal of the royal family, especially Diana, Princess of Wales—whom Morgan revered as the biggest source of circulation he had known.

He reproduces in the book a four-page transcript of a phone conversation with Diana, initiated by her, after he had phoned to check a story about a private visit she had made to the Priory clinic. What he calls "a great scoop" is a collection of banalities about her bulimia, her recovery from it and her desire to assist others suffering from it. Diana, on Morgan's account, approved an extensively rewritten story through her aide Michael Gibbins, who had told the Mirror editor that the princess was "very grateful" for the changes Morgan had made at her behest. Diana then issued a statement on the day of publication saying she was "deeply disappointed" about the disclosure of her Priory visit and talk.

The reverence which Morgan feels for Diana is based on an acknowledgement of her power (the only other figure in the diaries given such treatment is Rupert Murdoch). Furious at her betrayal over the Priory story, he threatens Gibbins with printing the transcript of the conversation in which the two agreed the story. "Oh," says Gibbins, "the princess doesn't think you will do anything like that now you are getting on so well." Morgan reflects: "I'm trapped on Planet Diana, a crazy place where she calls the shots and is famous enough and important enough to newspapers to get away with it. You have to hand it to the little minx. Even by her standards, this is breathtaking behaviour."

In another incident, Peter Mandelson is contacted by Morgan after the paper runs an excerpt—which Mandelson regarded as "disgustingly homophobic"—from a book on Gordon Brown written by the Mirror political commentator Paul Routledge. The book had as its "killer fact" the revelation that Mandelson had received a large loan to buy a house from the wealthy Geoffrey Robinson, a close ally of Brown and then the paymaster general, one of the treasury ministers. Mandelson furiously tells the Mirror editor that the latter "regards politics and life as showbiz." It's a true enough observation, spoiled by a final demand that Morgan take him out "for a very expensive meal somewhere."

Morgan does regard politics and life as showbiz, and he is able to do so because the politicians allow him to do it—so great is their dependence on his paper. Indeed, some of the politicians still see the Mirror as an arm of Labour propaganda, and Morgan occasionally allows them to do so. At one breakfast meeting between the two of them at the treasury, Gordon Brown takes a small tape from his desk and gives it to Morgan.

"'This is a recording of Liam Fox (then Tory health spokesman) saying he wants to kill off the NHS and make everyone pay for treatment.'

'Right, where's that from, then?'

'A meeting of Tories… We, er, infiltrated it.'

It wasn't exactly Watergate but it was a good story and I was grateful to have it… 'This is great, thanks. We'll splash it tomorrow.'"

Seeing life as showbiz means insisting that politicians accept a new kind of media power. When Stanley Baldwin made his famous remark about harlots and responsibility, he had in mind political campaigns by Rothermere and Beaverbrook to destabilise him, in part through the creation of a new party, the United Empire party. The proprietors took on the politicians on the latter's own grounds—that of politics—and, not surprisingly, lost. Now, newspaper editors humble governments—more effectively—by forcing them on to their territory, one constructed on the grounds of scandal, personality and sex. This had a particular kind of apogee in the latter stages of the general election campaign, when the Sun's team sent to interview and photograph the prime minister and his wife cajoled them into some raunchy banter about their "five times a night" sexual activity.

The interview attracted widespread condemnation. Minette Marrin, in the Sunday Times, was the most self-satisfyingly outraged: "Commentators have been warning for years of the decline of modesty and manners. But even the most outraged of Jeremiahs could never have dreamt of hearing this willing violation of one's own intimacy, this prostitution of private sexual love for public relations, this Big Brother confessional, boastful, hyper-sexualised slaggy prolespeak in the garden of No 10 on the lips of the prime minister and his wife, the day before a general election."

It is true that there is little sense of reluctance here, on either side of the Atlantic. (A few weeks earlier, Laura Bush, the US first lady, joked to White House correspondents about her husband's lack of sexual interest—saying that "Mr Excitement" was asleep by nine o'clock, leaving her to watch Desperate Housewives alone.) But politicians in the Anglo-Saxon world —and their wives, desperate or satisfied—have accepted that some "slaggy prolespeak" is the price which the world of entertainment exacts from that of administration: a demand that leading politicians, if they wish to market themselves to the public via the media, must provide amusement of various sorts, by talk if they don't have the decency to have affairs which can be revealed. Meanwhile all the detailed policy debates are largely relegated to the dwindling number of serious news outlets. Only when an issue can be dramatised into a scandal—as the lying charges against Blair—do the mass media incorporate political coverage into their daily or hourly offerings, and then as an unremitting narrative of scandal. These are the media the politicians now have: the media are the only way to get beyond a few hundred of the party faithful; and since the mass media now have little interest in doing anything other than mocking, scandalising or "sexing up" politics, the politicians' choice is the unenviable one of prolespeak—or no-speak.

By contrast to the simplifying of politics in the mass media, complexity—if the claims of the American writer Steven Johnson are to be believed—has moved into television fiction. Johnson, the author of Everything Bad is Good for You, writes that "the popular television culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less." That may well be true: but it coexists with a political world which can only attract attention by adopting the personal and sexual narratives of the entertainment culture.

Morgan shows the calculations of this world, and does so unself-consciously—assuming, as of right, that the editor of the Daily Mirror can treat politicians with contempt: he has, after all, been trained by Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of the Sun in the 1980s and 1990s, whose scorn for politicians was measureless. The conspiring of politicians in their own trivialisation is one of the untold stories of our times. It is time we were told—and Morgan's document is a good start.