Naughty, but news?

Media Scandals
April 10, 1998

Media Scandals is an odd title given that this is not a book about what deal Tony Blair and Rupert Murdoch might or might not have done in Australia to guarantee The Sun's support for Labour. It is a book about scandals in general that raises the question, are there such things as scandals that do not involve the media? Probably not, for a scandal that does not make it into the local newspaper or onto the local television news at least, amounts to no more than gossip; for this is a media-mediated world and all scandals are media scandals.

However, title aside, this is a book to be recommend. It is an interesting collection of essays bringing a variety of disciplinary perspectives, from both Britain and the United States, to bear on the question of scandal. The perspective eschews the obvious temptation simply to condemn scandal as representing a deviation from normal standards of journalism. Instead several of the authors, in particular Laura Grindstaff in a fascinating account of life behind the scenes of an Oprah Winfrey-style talk show, demonstrates how the criteria that television brings to its selection and treatment of scandals is qualitatively no different from the way it deals with most other material. In other words, producers look for a strong human interest, entertainment value, a good story and a money shot (the key moment when the protagonists confront each other). In other words, scandals are not a media aberration but are very much part of the mainstream.

Indeed, far from being deviations from the norm, scandals can play an important role in helping societies monitor and evaluate their shifting moral codes. This is a point well made by the editors in their opening essay, in which they differentiate between guilt and shame, as the end result of scandals. O.J. Simpson, for example, was found not guilty by the court but has had to live with the shame inflicted on him by the verdict of wider US society. On the other hand, Lorena Bobbitt, who took a knife to her husband's masculinity, was most decidedly guilty but the public reaction to her, based on her claim that she, not her husband, was the real victim, meant she suffered little public shame.

John Thompson, in his contribution, observes that it is this shaming that makes politicians peculiarly susceptible to scandal. This is because their reputations are almost their only resource and have to be kept shame-free. However, in a world increasingly subjected to the media's penetrating gaze, this is extremely difficult, and politicians become vulnerable to any perceived dissonance between their public positions and their private behaviour. Thompson sees reputation, which he characterises as a resource that politicians seek to accumulate and maintain, as the currency of scandals. Reputations, once lost, can take many years to regain, as the Conservatives discovered last year - indeed this process can be seen as an important part of the explanation of the size of their electoral humiliation. Thompson goes on to make the point that the nub of a scandal is frequently not the allegedly scandalous act itself but the subsequent attempt to cover up the act; he quotes an anonymous poem that circulated at the time of the Profumo scandal in the 1960s, when a cabinet minister's affair with call-girl Christine Keeler was seen as leading to the downfall of the Macmillan government: "Oh what have you done, cried Christine, You've wrecked the whole party machine!

To lie in the nude may be terribly rude, But to lie in the House is obscene."

This concentration on the alleged cover-up is particularly pertinent now given President Clinton's recent difficulties with Monica Lewinsky and others. Bruce Gronbeck, in his essay, argues that character has become the central issue of American politics. In the complex world of politics, the audience/consumers want simple choices and simple solutions. They, Gronbeck says, do not want to have to work out how to cope with the government deficit or what to do about Saddam Hussein, they want a product they can trust - a president who will take the difficult decisions for them and solve the country's problems. Certainly that was Ronald Reagan's successful appeal - a lesson well learnt by Clinton and, later, by Tony Blair, both of whom made trust central to their campaigns. But making trust the central issue is a two-edged sword: if you ask voters to make a judgement about your personality, rather than your politics, you run the very real risk that such a judgement might be clouded by minor indiscretions - in other words, the price of what appears to be scandalous behaviour can be very high. In the modern media age, the philanderings of a Palmerston or Gladstone would be straightforward disqualifications from office.

However, Gronbeck's analysis of the way Bill Clinton, and perhaps just as significantly Hillary, turned the Gennifer Flowers affair in 1991 from a near-disaster that almost took him out of the presidential campaign to one that came to be seen as a defining positive moment in his political career, is instructive. For what the Clintons succeeded in doing in taking on the Flowers claims in a television interview (and this bears a great resemblance to their tactics in dealing with the Lewinsky affair) was to be upfront about past misdemeanours (although pointedly not about the Flowers affair) while simultaneously turning the tables on the media, arguing that the real scandal was the way the press, and in particular the tabloids, was exploiting personal difficulties for political ends.

Private vice was transformed into private virtue and, thence, into public virtue, Gronbeck observes. There are parallels in this country. Jack Straw, the minister responsible for policing Britain's drugs laws, faced perhaps the ultimate politician's (not to mention parents') nightmare, when his son was caught handling drugs by The Mirror. But in moves that were reminiscent of the way Clinton handled the Flowers affair, Straw was upfront about the facts of the case and, whether deliberately or not, succeeded in turning attention away from his own position and onto the way the media had handled the story. In the process Straw came to be seen as having acted with probity and emerged from the scandal politically, if not personally, stronger than before.

The Straw case, and for that matter the Lewinsky affair, are both examples of scandals following paths that are not always predictable. For, as Elizabeth Bird demonstrates in her contribution, there is a circularity about scandals that involves a dialectical relationship between the audience and the text. For, in the case of scandals, the audience is an active one, bringing to the facts of the case its own experiences, predispositions and prejudices. Bird traces how audiences use scandals to help them structure their view of the world and what is, or is not, acceptable behaviour. In many cases, what the media deem to be scandalous behaviour leaves the public unmoved and the spotlight moves on or, as we have seen, shines back in the face of the media themselves. The problem that Bird identifies is that the public's apparently increasing appetite for scandals is providing audiences with more and more opportunities to avoid real news. There is now a growing information gap between those who consume tabloid newspapers, listen to phone-in radio and watch daytime talk shows and those who read broadsheet newspapers, listen to the Today programme and watch Newsnight and the news on Channel 4. This gap is one that politicians have spotted and are increasingly exploiting with their simplistic appeals to emotion and avoidance of debate and complexity. As Bird puts it, "Iscandalous news is pleasurably useful, in that through these media morality tales people come to terms with their own moral codes and values, as well as enjoying themselves immensely. All cultures need to do that. But if personal morality tales are all we are telling each other, then larger more complex stories that ultimately affect us all will go untold" - allowing, perhaps, the influence of a power bloc to grow unchecked until it is too late to stop it.

Ivor Gaber is professor of broadcast journalism, Goldsmiths College, University of London, and an independent radio and television producer.

Media Scandals: Morality and Desire in the Popular Culture Marketplace

Editor - James Lull and Stephen Hinerman
ISBN - 0 7456 1885 5 and 1886 3
Publisher - Polity
Price - £45.00 and £12.95
Pages - 259

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