Paddy Pantsdown and pals

Political Scandal
March 22, 2002

Scandal happens. Scandal has always happened. But, of course, scandals do not just happen, and it is their constitution as mediated social phenomena - of growing prominence in Anglo-American political life - that John Thompson sets out to explore in this book.

As a subject, scandal poses significant challenges. Few scholarly analyses exist, as Thompson points out. More popular treatments may disparage scandal's deleterious impact on public life but in terms that merely replicate the opprobrious discourse and dubious moralism that characterise mediated scandals themselves. Bemoaning the salience of scandal in public life, such critiques nevertheless titillate readers with regurgitated reruns of the imbroglios and "-gates" that have marked public life since the 1970s, participating in the very processes of trivialisation and prurience they purport to disdain.

Thompson is wary of this mimetic trap. Three taxonomic chapters do offer considerable detail on sex, financial and power scandals of the post-Watergate era. But Thompson's aim is not simply to re-narrate and codify, rather to reflect on what scandal's prominence reveals about the character of power in the "media age", developing a "social theory" of scandal's "conditions and consequences".

Sensitive to the historically and contextually specific constitution of "the scandalous", Thompson elaborates a number of factors that have enabled the emergence - and proliferation - of contemporary scandal. Central to his analysis is the way in which mass media have rearticulated relations between rulers and ruled, diminishing the "backstage" arena of power. From the 18th century onwards, popular media have made scandal a stock-in-trade. While the exposure of transgressive behaviour panders (profitably) to a public appetite for salacious "info-tainment", it has long found justification in more lofty journalistic ideals: private peccadillos unmasked in "the public interest".

While such "visibility" may have introduced welcome elements of transparency into political life, it has more worrisome connotations and consequences. In Thompson's account, what is exposed by our enthusiasm for catching politicians with their pants down is less the emperor's nakedness than a democratic deficit. As the ideological politics of class-based allegiances dwindle - with politicians contesting an ever-narrower middle ground - "character" has been elevated over "competence" in estimations of leaders' fitness for office. Saturated by scandal, some voters have retreated from formal participation in political life altogether, concluding that politicians are an inherently untrustworthy species. Scandal, then, is doubly depleting: destroying the reputations of those it exposes (draining the supplies of "symbolic capital" on which public figures depend) while contributing to a wider erosion of democratic culture and confidence.

Thompson's case is cogent, but important supplementary questions are only tentatively broached. Scandal, as he fleetingly concedes, neither invariably nor indelibly tarnishes the reputation of those it smears. Nor, as the aftermath of "Monica-gate" made clear, does a negative appreciation of a leader's character necessarily lead to a diminution of support, if voters feel their wellbeing sufficiently secure, even in recklessly roving presidential hands. Under what conditions, then, does "character" overwhelm considerations of "competence" - and are these two categories as distinct as this dichotomy suggests? Finally, what significance might we draw from the fact that in all the political scandals considered here, women figure only as the objects rather than the subjects of scandal - transgressed against, but not transgressing?

Susan Carruthers is senior lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age

Author - John B. Thompson
ISBN - 0 7456 2549 5 and 0 2550 9
Publisher - Polity
Price - £55.00 and £14.99
Pages - 336

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