The Freudian Slip – George Galloway in Celebrity Big Brother
11 January 2005
I was watching the opening of Celebrity Big Brother with my daughter, who is in the demographic that this programme is aimed at. She was telling me who Jodie ****** is – forgotten her surname – the page 3 model, and I was able to tell her who Rula Lenska was. Of the identity of a couple of them neither of us had a clue but it didn’t matter, and neither of us felt stupid, however we burst out laughing when we saw the last contestant … George Galloway!
My first thought was – what the f**k is he doing on Big Brother! My second was, well, it’ll be a bit more interesting than it usually is, except I’m not really in a position to say since I never actually watch it, though you can’t help hearing about it. Then I wondered what possible political rationale he had for appearing in the programme. I’m sure he must have given some reason on screen before he went into the Big Brother house but I was so busy exchanging comments with my daughter that I didn’t hear.
Never mind, I had worked out the justification anyway.
George’s performances since being elected as MP have been decidedly mixed. His indictment of the US war in Iraq in Washington in front of a Senate investigating committee was one of those moments when you just want to punch the air and shout out Yes! His one man ‘audience with me’ tour round Britain, Ireland and elsewhere, which saw him absent from an important vote at Westminster which unusually - very unusually - may actually have made a difference, brought out the unavoidable question whether it was for the benefit of RESPECT, his political project, or a too obvious exercise in self-promotion.
With his appearance on Celebrity Big Brother there is now really no question about it.
I am old enough for the term Big Brother to have raised images of nightmarish oppression and I can just about recall my unsettled feelings of disapproval when the Big Brother programme was first announced. It is still one of those constructs of popular culture whose predicates should not be accepted. They should certainly not receive the sort of tacit approval signalled by participation.
The Channel Four programme’s introduction disturbed me because of its affinity to Orwell’s book. In so far as it is any different it is, in a perverse way, actually worse. Of course we aren’t talking about the omnipotent dictatorship of ‘1984’ or its violence. The surrender of liberty, privacy and social contact is voluntary - but that is what makes it worse.
Contestants in Big Brother are imprisoned, spied on day and night and deprived of all social contact – no books , no newspapers, no radio and no tv. They are then subject to inane interviews by Big Brother and set petty tasks in a competition in which no particular virtue makes success more likely and no particular vice make it less so. No wonder only the desperate or desperately foolish go on it. Thus we have celebrity has beens desperately trying to resuscitate a career and desperate wannabe’s trying to get their 15 minutes.
This Celebrity Big Brother revealed a set of self-obsessed individuals fixated with the mass media, bitterly moaning about it and its manipulations, and complaining about being set up by it for judgement by people who don’t know them – and this on Big Brother!! Only the utterly unselfconscious and unreflective could come out with such ironic tosh. It is almost beyond parody.
The programme is an exercise in manipulation that is demeaning to those participating and those watching, mitigated only by the fact that no one takes it seriously – except now, George Galloway.
This is what makes his participation wrong.
‘I’m a great believer in the democratic process. Big Brother is watched by millions, ‘ says George.
Bad decisions are supported by bad arguments. Just what is the connection between the (debased) ‘democratic process’ and Celebrity Big Brother? George tells us that more young people vote on Big Brother than in the general election. But more go to football matches than political meetings and more march to the supermarket than march on demos. So what? In what sense is voting in Big Brother related to voting in an election? What judgements are being made, what expectations are created and what significance is attached to each?
George Galloway has said it is an opportunity to reach a wider audience with an anti-war message. But doesn’t George know about media bias? Didn’t he walk off an interview with Jeremy Paxman just after he got elected? Doesn’t he know that Big Brother is an exercise in manipulation? Does he really expect Channel 4 will give him a soapbox?
Celebrity Big Brother, despite non-stop filming from every conceivable angle is heavily censored – remember no newspapers, no radio etc. Like soaps no one in this ‘reality’ tv show is expected to talk about the real world they live in. And no one minds, perhaps because, unlike George, they know that inside the Big Brother house they are outside the real world.
In the real real world Channel 4 has edited out political comments it doesn’t like and even E4, which carries hours and hours of it, has bleeped out comments. But you can’t complain about that can you? Well no, of course not – you’re locked up and haven’t a clue what’s going on.
And even if you weren’t censored, just who do you think watches Big Brother? It’s a programme without serious content. It’s meant to be like that and that is why people watch it. Some of those who watch it already have political views and will find George Galloway’s appearance less than impressive. If they haven’t heard of the war nothing George says will make any difference and if they have heard of it, and haven’t made up their mind, the war will have to come closer to home before they will. Eloquent points by George will be worth didley-squat. If they support the war why would an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother change their minds and if they oppose the war will they not just be embarrassed?
Will not the net effect be to trivialise and demean politics, and what is seen as left-wing politics in particular?
If not embarrassing, then certainly pathetic has been the response of (some?) of the Socialist Workers Party, the footsoldiers behind RESPECT. A statement from a leading member of it and RESPECT has defended the decision of Galloway to appear in the programme despite it being all too predictable that he would be leaving himself open to charges of publicity seeking egotism and failing to attend to his political responsibilities.
While political attacks from enemies should not be a reason for doing or not doing something, giving them a penalty kick is unwise.
Bad decisions are supported by bad arguments from supporters. The Irish indymedia site hosted a debate in which critics of George’s appearance were able to rip shreds off a member of the Socialist Workers Party who came on to defend the decision. The SWP, having hitched their political fortunes in an opportunistic manner to Galloway and the RESPECT project, have found themselves following behind a political path that departs further and further from any principled course. Of course principles in this world of reality politics are invariably derided as the province of the dogmatic and politically sectarian.
Unfortunately for the apologists George’s decision can’t be defended without tripping over oneself. Thus the blogger on indymedia asserts mutually contradictory arguments. While it is an ‘interesting cultural experiment’ he ‘won’t be watching it’ – why not? and while the leader and public face of RESPECT appears for possibly three weeks on tv this is only a ’personal decision’ and is ‘his own business.’
Galloway appears aware that the whole enterprise may not be a roaring success so he has a fall back justification: that his appearance will result in money going to a Palestinian charity – and who could cavil at this?
Well … actually … someone could.
Socialism isn’t about charity. In fact it has had to fight against those who present charity as a solution to the ills of capitalism. Socialism asserts that the problems addressed by charity are only expressions of a system that has to be overthrown. In fact today, when young people are pressed to view the problems of the world through the lens of charitable campaigns – Live 8, Make Poverty History etc – it is more important than ever to stress the fundamental differences between charity and socialism.
Righting the wrongs of the world through beseeching, pestering or searching for the consciences of the world’s rich and powerful is a million miles away from seeking a solution through overthrowing the social system presided over by these people. Charity obscures the fact that the poor and oppressed are always with us because the rich and oppressors are too. It obscures the fact that we should not look to find others deserving of charity but see ourselves as one with them in a constituency that must fight to truly change the world.
If George Galloway and friends think that an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother has advanced this once inch they are sadly mistaken.
No doubt someone will tell me who won.