Those Bloody Microphones
Posted on 1-May-2010
Gordon Brown, the British Prime Minister went out to meet "ordinary" folk during the current election campaign in the United Kingdom. One such person, a 65 year old widow, talked to him about jobs and immigration. From what some of the television cameras showed, the conversation seemed to have gone off well. Getting into his car, he expressed his irritation with whoever had arranged for him to meet this woman and described her as bigoted. The hapless British Prime Minister did not know that as he spoke, he still had a live television microphone attached to his jacket. Since then media organisations, both those which vacuously wallow in trivia and those for which presentation of news is a means to some end, have talked of this incident as a major political disaster. It is doubtful if it is. In the week that remains of the British election campaign, the incident in all likelihood will have been forgotten about. The bulk of the electorate will likely vote according to its judgment of Brown's performance as Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and of its judgment of the abilities of his competitors. Incidents of this kind are more commonplace than it appears from the news coverage of this accident. In 1983, at an international conference in New Delhi where the chairmanship of the non aligned movement was to pass from Fidel Castro, who is reputed for his long speeches, to Indira Gandhi, she was caught on a live microphone complaining in somewhat informal Hindi to one of her aides about Castro going on and on. On new year's day of 1978 in New Delhi, a live microphone caught Jimmy Carter and one of his aides in a conversation before a meeting with Morarji Desai in which he said that they, the Americans, must not allow the Indians any wiggle room on the issue of the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty. Neither of these incidents caused any problem for relations between India and Cuba or India and the USA any more than Brown's "gaffe" is likely to affect his prospects at next week's election. These merit no more than passing notice as "odd news".
It is silly to pretend that incidents of this kind bring to light the "real", Jimmy Carter or Indira Gandhi or Gordon Brown behind their deceptive masks. On the contrary they show that they are only too human. A gap between what people think or feel in private and what they say openly or what they do is necessary or normal in all human social intercourse. If people did not temper their raw emotions or control their irrational responses to external stimuli, life in society would become impossible. Such self-control is necessary not only out of respect for established conventions but also out of concern for the feelings and interests of others. This kind of doublefacedness is inherent in life of people as social beings. If everyone were to know what everyone else was thinking, saying or doing in private no one would be talking to anyone else; there would be no love, affection or friendship . There is a delightful short story by Saki in which at a House Party, a cat called Tobermory, trained to understand and talk in human languages, prowls from room to room, sees and hears and then awkwardly spills handfuls of beans everywhere. The cat and the trainer come to sad ends. But Saki took delight in impishness. Others make lighthearted comedies and farces out of this gap between public and private personae of people especially when the gap becomes exaggerated.
This gap becomes unattractive hypocrisy when people deliberately adopt postures in order to mislead, defraud or bamboozle. Hypocrisy sadly is rife in politics and most of the time it takes the form of politicians dissimulating theirs or their group's real motives behind their actions from the people whose support they seek and instead seek to clothe their intentions or actions in high moral principles. One of the most egregious recent examples of such utter dishonesty was the Anglo-American decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Less reprehensible, though nonetheless hypocritical, are Barack Obama's or US senators' anger at the excessive greed of Wall Street or the daily claims of Manmohan Singh and of his ministerial colleagues to be working for the common man while under their noses India's Planning Commission is having to revise upwards its estimates of Indians living below the poverty line and while the share of India's wealth owned by a tiny number of Indians has been increasing or while according to one estimate the amount of illegal money stashed away by Indians in Swiss banks exceeds India's annual Gross Domestic Product. Politicians likewise make promises in democratic election campaigns that they know they will not or will not be able to keep. Why this should be so is one of the puzzles of political life I have not been able to solve ( vide Apologia in The Waste Sad Time). But the widely perceived gap between politicians' promises and their real intentions and interests is probably the single most important reason for increasing disenchantment with them in so many places.
Hypocrisy is equally implicit in modern politicians' concern with image over substance, with form rather than mission. That so much time and some money should be spent by politicians on make up before their appearance before cameras in television studios is a minor matter. Also minor is not only the expenditure but also the publicising of the expenditure of a few million dollars on a banquet for heads of state after a Group of Eight summit in Japan at which one of the issues that the heads of state concerned themselves with was poverty elimination in Africa. More importantly, this concern with image makes it difficult to decide whether political leaders' spinmeisters run them or they them. It looks as if Gordon Brown's decision to meet ordinary Britons which ended with this microphone incident was the handiwork of his spinmeisters. In India an upcoming politician of great importance has taken to spending nights or sharing meals in the hovels of untouchables or other poor people, all under the glaze of publicity, while word circulates widely in Delhi of his taste for luxury in apparel and in holidays or of the company of the slick, wealthy people he keeps most of the time. It is in fact difficult to see how a modern politician of some importance cocooned in so many shells of security can get to know "ordinary" people. It is equally difficult to see who gets fooled by all the image making, unless we assume that entire populations consist only of gamma babies. Many politicians and their image makers certainly seem to think so.
It is these that are the real questions of modern politics and not live microphones that occasionally misbehave like Tobermory.