The Big Lie – the complete book online - 23 Politics

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Chapter 23

Where there’s muck, there’s muck-slingers


Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

George Orwell

On the black and white television screen the patrician, balding man stood uneasily on the front porch of a modest clapboard house somewhere in Middle America. He was wearing a rumpled suit and clutching a paper bag full of groceries, awkwardly, like a new father holding a baby for the first time. The man’s name was Adlai Stevenson, the civilised, intelligent Democratic candidate for President of the United States, and he was telling us something about the economy. It was 1956. Politics had taken its first clumsy step into show business.

Fast forward to the 1994 elections for the American Senate. Another man – younger, taller, more athletic, and better groomed – bounds across a field holding hands with an attractive woman and two little girls, backlit by the rays of the sun. Dissolve from the happy family to a framed portrait of one of the charming daughters and then to the father standing by an old stone wall amidst wildflowers. This picture, resonating with nature and tradition, is a soothing contrast from the footage of a few seconds ago, when scenes of horrific disasters had flashed across the screen. The voice-over is magisterial: “With fires, earthquakes and a terrible recession, recent years have tested the people of California. Nearly a million moved away, but Mike Huffington and his wife came back to the state that educated him and is the birthplace of their two daughters”. Huffington then adds his own insight: “This election isn’t just about who you will send to Washington next year. It’s about our children and their future”. As the music swells to a climax, the family group reassembles. Mr Huffington confides something to his spouse, who smiles radiantly. As she strokes the hair of one of her daughters sitting in her father’s lap, this slogan appear on the screen: “Finally. A reason to believe”. Spurred by his new wife, Arianna Stassinopoulos, a Cambridge-educated new age mystic, Michael Huffington, the previously little known Republican congressman from California, was trying to “buy a face” and win a seat in the Senate chamber. He spent one-third of his personal wealth on his campaign, an unprecedented $25m (£15.5m). The scale of this investment and the hints dropped by his aspirant wife suggested that he saw the Senate as a staging post for the White House. Huffington was no flesh-presser, and made only a few carefully managed public appearances. He was perhaps the first “virtual candidate”, visible almost exclusively on television. His political platform was sparsely furnished, too. Like Hollywood’s anti-heroes, Forrest Gump and Chance the gardener, the protagonist of Being There, he was tapping into voter alienation. His credo: “I want a government that does nothing”.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast of America, the enterprising facilitator of the Iranian arms for hostages scandal, erstwhile Marine Colonel Oliver North, recently convicted of lying to Congress, was campaigning for a Senate seat too. His television commercial featured the cover of Playboy magazine, showing the nude figure of a former Miss Virginia. She had claimed to have had an affair with his Democratic opponent, whose lame defence was that it had only been a nude massage in a hotel room. “Only a massage?” asked the advertisement.

Political appeals have always been emotional and often dirty. Neither Mike Huffington nor Colonel North was elected to the US Senate, but successful politicians, from Mahatma Ghandi to Adolf Hitler, have always sold simplicities, not complexities. The television medium, with its dramatic compression, its emphasis on personality, and its short memory, is a gift to their successors. By bringing electioneering off the public soapbox and out of the dense small print of the broadsheets to intrude into voter’s living-rooms, it has changed the electoral process forever. But does political advertising, on television or elsewhere, with its obvious bias, influence your vote?

The British like to believe that traditions of fair play mean that they are too gentlemanly to be swayed by hard-sell advertising. The Saatchi & Saatchi advertising agency, widely credited with having engineered three Tory election victories in a row, swept away that illusion when it started selling a political party like a brand, the way American politicians did. The positive message was a coy picture of Margaret Thatcher embracing a calf. But the chief weapon her team imported was “knocking copy”: overt attacks on the opposition. In 1979 the agency assembled volunteers from the Hendon Young Conservatives to pose as a lugubrious, snaking queue of the unemployed in a memorable aggressive poster with the clever double entendre “Labour Isn’t Working”.

The old Left view was that advertising was the handmaiden of capitalism and the work of the Devil. The epiphany on the Walworth Road occurred in 1984 when the Labour head of the Greater London Council, Ken Livingstone, dipped into the taxpayers’ pockets to fund his campaign on bus sides and posters to protest the Tory government’s decision to abolish London’s governing body. His populist plea, “If you want me out, you should have the right to vote me out”, did not deflect the government, but it attracted great sympathy, rage, and publicity, confirmed “Red Ken” as a popular media figure, and severely embarrassed the Thatcher government. By the next election, Labour was playing the Devil’s tunes, too, with its red rose symbol and the epic film of candidate Neil Kinnock, The Life of Neil.

In the British election of 1992, posters were the weapon of choice. These rarely appeared anywhere outside central London, and sometimes there was only one, a mobile poster manoeuvred into place for a photo-call, a cynical tactic designed only to stimulate photographic coverage by the news media. The politicians were heeding the advice of Robert Worcester, chairman of the research company MORI. A mountain of research evidence had led him to declare, “The main message that TV news gets across in an election is visual. The things that stick in people’s minds are what they saw, and not what they heard”.

The poster is a shorthand medium which does not lend itself to the positive exposition of policies, but negatives are easy to dramatise, so it is a suitable surface for smearing tactics in the venerable tradition of the political cartoon. Both parties were influenced by American experience, in which the “Willie Horton” commercial had been credited with helping George Bush win the 1988 presidential contest against Michael Dukakis. This repellent film reminded voters that during the liberal governor’s administration in Massachusetts, Horton, a convicted killer, had raped a woman and beaten her fiancé while on furlough from prison.

While party election broadcasts and a sentimental film directed by John Schlesinger, Major, the Movie took a softer, more positive line, the key 1992 Tory theme, “You can’t trust Labour”, was cruder than previously. The American phrase “the double whammy” was introduced to the language over the figure of a small man wearing huge boxing-gloves labelled “More taxes” and “Higher prices”. Another poster showed a ball and chain captioned “Five years’ hard Labour”.

Labour retaliated with an emotional film exploiting the sentimental case of a 5-year-old girl, Jennifer Bennett, to criticise hospital waiting lists. It backfired when investigation revealed a heavy application of advertising gloss: the consultant involved said the operating delay had nothing to do with underfunding of the NHS, while Jennifer’s mother claimed she didn’t recognise her “story”. Labour also demonised members of the Tory Cabinet. William Waldegrave, the Secretary of Health, was pictured on a poster wearing a surgical mask and brandishing a scalpel. The legend underneath: “Tory health policy: Your money or your life”. Chancellor of the Exchequer Norman Lamont appeared wearing a sinister expression and a Batman costume, labelled “Vatman”. The message was that the Tories had broken electoral promises by imposing additional value added taxes.

Do such tactics work? Like all negative appeals, they run the risk of creating impressions other than those the advertiser intends. The young Mr Waldegrave, for example, scion of a noble family, was an attractive-looking man in a languid, upper-class sort of way, particularly when his weak mouth was covered by a surgeon’s mask. Could not this portrayal suggest that the Minister for Health was a doctor? Surely, no bad thing? A survey of 100 undecided London voters quoted in The Times reported that few had recognised Mr Lamont as the “Vatman”, and those who did thought it was a Tory poster promoting him as a heroic figure. Nearly half of the respondents thought the posters they saw, for both parties, were advertising the rival party. In another survey, cited by the Guardian, 82 per cent misidentified the party behind the ad.

Nevertheless, political consultants insist that negative attacks work. Yet the apparent success of mud-slinging in politics may trace less to its negative slant than to its choice of battlefield. While run-of-the-mill politicians focus on policies, parroting the party line, voters focus on personalities. By focusing on human character negative advertising arouses interest and secures attention to the message. However, a positive branding of a personality can also achieve impressive results. The most successful politicians are those blessed with “the human touch”; they win hearts and minds not through consistent policies, but by projecting themselves as the solution to disgruntlement with the political system. A second-rank Hollywood actor, Ronald Reagan, became the leader of the Free World by identifying with voter dissatisfaction about “big government”; at the other end of the political spectrum, but for much the same reason, the renegade “Red Ken” Livingstone, standing as a populist independent, prevailed against the applied resources of a hostile New Labour government, to become the first elected mayor of London in 2000.

Developing a positive communications strategy for a political party, rather than a charismatic individual, however, is incredibly difficult. There are many one-issue interest groups to appeal to, often holding diametrically opposed views. In his book All’s Fair, James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign, recounts that in the late spring of 1992, when he had already hired staff, spent millions of dollars, and won lots of committed delegates, he still needed a rationale. “It took almost three months, but finally our thinking began to crystallize”, he wrote. What the team came up with was the somewhat threadbare phrase “Putting People First”. It is surely true that negative impressions, being more dramatic, are more memorable. A stinging ad smearing an opponent’s character defines him far more sharply than an assault on his policies. Yet what is it that is remembered? During American elections, across the television screen stalk a series of candidates described by their opponents as allies of child-molesters and murderers, hypocrites or crooks. So many viewers may draw the obvious conclusion: if all politicians are scoundrels, and all government is pernicious, why bother voting?


Not all political advertising takes place during elections. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, a strange new kind of corporate advertising took over British television screens. Actor Anthony Hopkins became the generic voice of British energy. His orotund Welsh articulation was recruited to underscore scenes of an England forever green in bombastic commercials for British Gas, British Nuclear Fuels, and the renaissance of the Central Electricity Generating Board as National Power. In a shot of a lightning-shattered sky, the latter’s new twin, PowerGen, smugly conceded that its cost-efficient power generation could be surpassed only by the Almighty. Televiewers were mystified by the millions of pounds being spent informing them that telephones were a useful way to communicate, that electricity keeps homes alight and factories turning, and that everybody needs water. Most of these national utilities were iron-clad monopolies, with no need to seek new customers or to reassure existing ones. Why advertise?

In addition to the usual Central Office of Information campaigns urging Her Majesty’s subjects to wrap up warmly, eat wisely, and not to drink and drive, the Tory Party was using advertising as an instrument to effect fundamental social change by selling off nationalised industries. As the bills were footed by the companies themselves, the government could claim that the aim was not political. But waves of advertising on such a massive scale were not politically neutral. The privatisation issues – for essential services, for the railways and the nuclear industry – were not just selling the prospectus, they were selling Thatcherism.

Agencies are not usually comfortable addressing business issues, which “creatives” scarcely comprehend. Fortunately for them, the aim of the privatisation programme, in addition to replenishing the government’s coffers, was to create a share-owning (hence Conservative-voting) consumer society. Moreover, the rules governing pre-privatisation flotation advertising were stringent. The brief was simply to raise a company’s profile prior to the official decision to take it public. Stock Exchange rules meant that you could not refer to profitability. You could not even reveal that the company was about to be offered for sale. The pre-privatisation brief was simply to repackage essential public services as trendy lifestyle choices, and so the “creatives” were able to reach into their bag of tricks for the usual visual hyperbole, outrageous puns, and silly send-ups. The subsequent hard-sell flotation advertising was another piece of cake: a simple appeal to greed. The early British Telecom sell-off campaign, “Tell Sid”, set the pattern: the man in the street shouldn’t miss out on this get-rich-quick scheme. The sell-off of the final £5 billion tranche of government shares in British Telecommunications some years later was promoted by a man in a badly fitting white wig, comedian Mel Smith pretending to be television detective Inspector Morse. A 1994 Spielbergian television pastiche showed, suspended over a moody Cityscape like spectral visitors from outer space, three floating eyes. One City gent asked another what’s going on. The answer: “Three eyes floating”. This was the flotation of Britain’s government-owned venture capital business, Investment in Industry, or 3i.

The sorts of people who write letters to the editors of national newspapers thought the campaigns were banal, wasteful, and silly. Nevertheless the privatisations were a tremendous success. There was no shortage of takers for blue-chip monopolies sold at give-away prices in a rising market, and most of the issues were oversubscribed. In less favourable circumstances, the feckless advertising hoopla was impotent, as in the case of a teaser campaign which appeared on billboards, bus sides and full-page advertisements in the national press in the late 1980s. All this space was devoted to the letters BG, in various lurid colours. Beneath each large letter appeared a word in tiny type, revealing that this acronym stood for ideals such as “Bridging Gaps”, “Bolder Goals”, “Backing Gumption”, “Brilliant Gizmos”, and “Beautiful Globe”. This hubristic display on behalf of British Gas signalled the imminent deregulation of the gas industry, but the privatisation of the company flopped; it had the misfortune to be timed for Black Monday in October 1987.

In 1989 the government became the advertising industry’s biggest customer, outstripping consumer goods companies such as Unilever. The Water Authorities Association alone spent almost £22 million to raise the industry’s public profile for privatisation, a figure swelled by individual campaigns by the ten regional water authority boards. It was estimated that the total expenditure amounted to 50p on every householder’s water bill. At the time of this splurge, UK sales of bottled water had been booming for more than a decade because of alarm about the quality of drinking water, while the industry claimed it did not have the funds to cope with droughts, replace decrepit Victorian sewage systems, or meet EC standards of pollution. Against this background, the pre-privatisation campaign, aimed at reassuring consumers about water quality, and a follow-up corporate awareness campaign were deeply unpopular. The “colossal scale” of this exercise was condemned by Labour’s environment spokesman John Cunningham as a “fruitless and dishonest public relations exercise”. His contention that the campaign’s undeclared “true aim was to promote water privatisation” was swiftly verified by the sell-off campaign, with a deluge of ads on the themes “Water floats” and “Be an H2-Owner”. The result was the usual over-subscribed share issue, plus press coverage which ensured a permanent legacy of public hostility about the poor state of Britain’s water supply.

Almost all the privatisation issues were gobbled up hungrily, but did the government succeed in its long-term objective of encouraging widespread share ownership by individuals? The question is clouded by the rise of the pension funds and other institutional investors which have come to dominate the market. In terms of value, in the early 1970s private investors accounted for nearly 40 per cent of the shares traded in London. In 1999, despite a buoyant market, less than 16 per cent were in private hands. But there were many more pairs of hands. In 1979, when the Tories took office, there were only about three million private shareholders. By the end of 1993, there were ten million. Not just “Sid”, hanging on to the handful of British Telecom shares he had bought in the first big round of privatisation issues. Britain had entered a new phase of mass share ownership, with an explosive growth of employee share schemes and investment clubs, plus untold numbers of unregistered shareholders who bought PEPs, the government’s highly popular tax-efficient Personal Equity Plans. This may be attributable at least in part to the massive privatisation campaigns. The record £104 million COI expenditure under Maggie Thatcher’s administration in fiscal year
1987-8 was not matched again until 1998-9, when, under Labour, the government once again became the nation’s largest advertiser, topping British Telecom and Procter & Gamble with £105.5 million.

Political advertising may play an important role in America, with its widespread electorate, unserved by popular national newspapers. Yet in all countries, who owns the channels of communication may be a far more influential factor than the advertising which appears on them. In Italy’s 1994 national elections, candidate Silvio Berlusconi owned Italy’s most popular television stations. He packaged a party called Forza Italia! (Go Italy!), presenting himself as a persona to lead it. His media empire provided him with free and constant access to “news coverage” by TV stations, newspapers, and magazines. His party won a comfortable majority in the Italian parliament.


We demand that our politicians trade in lies. The Korean state was founded in 2333 bc by a god-man called Tangan, son of a bear-woman, born on the sacred Mount Paekdu. In North Korea, governmental propaganda presents this legend as fact. It also asserts that Kim Jong-il, son of the late “Great Leader” Kim Il-Sung, was born there, too. He was in fact born in Khabarovsk in the far east of Russia. This lie is necessary to defend the assumption of divine right. In Western politics there are other myths which must be defended. No American politician can speechify without invoking the blessing of the Almighty, any more than any Middle Eastern despot can suggest any event has occurred other than through the will of Allah. No American foreign policy is implemented except in the name of democracy, even when it is shoring up a dictator in a country with no tradition of populism. No British political party can admit that full employment is an impossible goal. When the Liberal Democrats tried to launch a serious political debate about the legalisation of cannabis, merely acknowledging a national conversation that had been going on for years, they were derided in the popular press as irresponsible. While the House of Lords is being dismantled, no party may yet suggest it’s also time for the Queen to pack her bags. These cynical lies and evasions are the ritual offerings laid by the unbelieving power-seeker prostrating himself before the graven image of Public Opinion. Accepting the incorrigible, the Advertising Standards Authority has washed its hands: in 2001 it declared that political advertising would no longer be subject to its advertising code of practice.

There is inevitably a cultural lag between what people believe and the policies their leaders propound. The able politician has to keep abreast of the common experience. Political parties, like corporations, have to continually test their dogma against people’s notions of reality. In 1994, research amongst voters who had defected showed that while they were strongly right-wing on law and order, they were much less so on education and the National Health Service. This may have been because they had more personal familiarity with the latter (presumably they knew few criminals) and were thus in a better position to compare dogma with personal experience.

At the same time, the electorate has become more impatient of argument. Fast-cutting commercials have shortened its attention span. There is no time for balance or qualification in a soundbite. It is a mandate to conceal, distort or trample on the truth. And it’s getting shorter. The average bloc of uninterrupted speech by presidential candidates in the US was forty-two seconds in 1968. In 1988 it was ten seconds. While the candidates were on screen on the major networks in 1968, the time they were actually heard speaking was 84 per cent. In 1988 this had fallen to 37 per cent. The British politician seems still to get more than ten seconds’ exposure. In 2001 the BBC reported that the average length of all its news sound bites had fallen over the past three years from 30 to 25 seconds. (The venerable five-minute party political broadcast was halved in length for the 1997 British elections.)

These three tendencies – the belief in cultural mythology, the perceived contradictions between dogma and personal conceptions of reality, and the demand for a quick and easy fix – mean that it is impossible to fairly communicate abstract concepts, such as political policies. Mass public interest is aroused only when personalities are involved – such as the dethroning of Margaret Thatcher in 1990, the stuff of Shakespeare. Political advertising is the ultimate expression of the “personality testimonial” approach. It’s not surprising. If you can’t understand the issues, you vote for someone who you think shares your values. Sean Connery, for example, brought both local credibility and the heroic image of his film personality to bear when he campaigned for the SNP in the cause of Scottish nationalism in the elections for the new Scottish parliament in 1999. Yet curiously, politicians have been slow to recruit the support of celebrities – actors, comedians, pop singers, sports stars – in their advertising, perhaps because of a natural reluctance to share the limelight with a rival for popular affection who has a superior stage presence. After all, Ronald Reagan was an actor first. And he was following in the footsteps of Gary Cooper, who was proposed for President of the United States in 1936 by the Gary Cooper Fan Club of San Antonio: they claimed he had demonstrated his political credentials in the film Mr Deeds Goes to Town.


Fashion spurs us to achieve individuality through conformity. Cigarettes evade severe restrictions in Western societies through a cynical minimalism which survives even outright bans on advertising.Advertising for banks is usually counterproductive because the boast is so easily denied by the reality of experience. Most “corporate advertising” is as convincing as fairy tales, because it is actually directed at its own management. In the political arena, since abstract concepts, such as policies, are too woolly or too complex for effective compression by the techniques of mass communications, advertising is the ultimate expression of the empty “celebrity testimonial”. The distortion of truth through advertising is the engine which drives these and many other sectors. Inevitably, advertising’s Big Lies have social consequences too; these are examined in the next section.


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