Galloway's Orwellian Nightmare
A week in politics is a long time, but surely three weeks in the Celebrity Big Brother household is a lifetime. Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow George Galloway is at the centre of a media frenzy over his decision to become a Celebrity Big Brother housemate.
George Galloway was last to enter the Celebrity Big Brother household on 5th January, and has since been accused of arrogance and self-interest by the media, the public and his peers. Jim Fitzpatrick, Minister for London, said: “I am not too surprised about it…Mr. Galloway is a C-list politician with an A-list ego.”
We are told by his representatives that he wanted to use the Channel 4 show to engage with a new wider demographic, and, indeed, on his own website, he posted a statement saying: “I will talk about war and peace, about Bush and Blair, and about a need for a world built on respect.”
But Galloway’s “best bits” are not going to include his powerful condemnation of the war in Iraq or his damning words about Tony Blair, for his vitriolic attacks against the Prime Minister and his avowed anti-war rhetoric were either censored or edited out of the hour long “highlights.” Since his eviction (two days before the final), Galloway has made it clear that he is furious that his political comments were muzzled. He claims Big Brother producers made a deal that there would be no political censorship, but none of his discussions with housemates where he condemned the government over the invasion of Iraq were shown. Whilst in the house, his spokesperson Ron McKay said: “Contestants can be seen talking about animal rights, but not human rights. We've been stitched up. A complaint has been made to Channel 4.” On one occasion, housemates spoke about their fame. Again, Galloway’s speech was not shown. Channel 4 has since denied censorship, saying that highlights are selected and rejected solely on editorial grounds. However, Peter Bazalgette (Chairman of Endemol, the company which produces the show), has repeatedly claimed that politics should be more like Big Brother. Was it this attitude that lured Galloway into the house? “I believe that politicians should use every opportunity to communicate with people,” he said in a statement. “I'm a great believer in the democratic process. More young people vote during Big Brother than in the general election. I hope they'll all be voting for me over the next few weeks.”
But Galloway is a seasoned politician who is media savvy and has been the bête noire of the British media for some time. Did he really think he could use Channel 4 as a platform to express his anti-war, anti-establishment views? The media has rarely been kind to him; so why would Endemol be any different? His righteous indignation over his censorship is questionable, to say the least.
As much as the general public has berated Galloway’s appearance in the house, no one could accuse him of not throwing himself into the job at hand. In fact, if all else fails after his flirtation with Reality TV, Gorgeous George could at least look forward to a possible sponsorship deal with “Whiskas” after the infamous cat-gate scene where he purred up to actress Rula Lenska. Beyond that, lasting images include a leotard-clad robotics dance-off with surgically enhanced 80s pop singer Pete Burns, and solitary confinement in a cardboard box.
Even though these incidents have been banded around the tabloids, broadsheets and international press with great furore, seldom has it been mentioned that these incidents were all part of a task set by Big Brother in order for the ‘house mates’ to win money for food. What would be the media furore had George refused to participate in these tasks?
Galloway has gained nothing financially for making a fool of himself as he has donated his fee and all monies made by text voting (an estimated £100,000) to a Palestinian charity, Interpal (which the US Treasury has, in the past, accused of raising money for the recently elected Palestinian militant group Hamas).
With Comic Relief, Children in Need and many other fundraising events, we have celebrities making fools of themselves in the name of charity. Why is it that Galloway was so ridiculed for merely ‘playing the game’? Is it that the British media relish the opportunity to discredit any politician who breaks from the pack and asks the questions of government that they themselves should be asking? If so, Gorgeous George furnished them with ample ammunition. The resentment from his peers and his constituents was predominantly cited as being due to the fact that he was absent from his elected post. Much ado was made about him failing to take part on a vote on Crossrail, but is it fair to accuse him of neglecting parliamentary duties? The Respect MP is explicit with regard to his campaign record, boasting that he has held more public meetings in the constituency in the first eight months of his incumbency “than Oona King [the former MP for the area] did in her eight years.”
It should also be noted that Galloway was not in receipt of his parliamentary salary during his three-week stint in the house. Nevertheless, not one, but two petitions were started in a bid to get George back to work. The first was by his constituents. The other, launched by government chief whip Hilary Armstrong, reads: “We believe this egotistical action shows a shameful lack of respect for the people of this constituency.”
But in this self-imposed incarceration, he was unaware of the growing political storm in a media teacup. On the night of his eviction, he was greeted with a combination of boos and cheers: more boos than cheers, it has to be said. Was that all part of the pantomime protocol that the Big Brother format warrants? Possibly. But more importantly, does it really matter?
If Galloway chose to partake in a reality TV show (which attracts average ratings of 4.3 million) in order to connect with a younger audience, did he really achieve this? It has been argued that he alienated himself from and, at times, bullied the two youngest people in the house. He contested: “If I’ve half impressed half the people that would be a very good gain.” His antics in the house have certainly raised publicity for the Respect Party, but whether this publicity will manifest itself into more votes remains to be seen.
Did potential political suicide form part of the calculated risk in Galloway’s eyes? Perhaps he believed himself immune from such disaster. He has certainly dodged many political bullets in the past. After his unforgettable haranguing of the US senate, he returned to the UK to almost unanimous acclaim; even the right-wing media grudgingly paid him his dues. But when asked by presenter Davina McCall whether he was happy he had participated in Celebrity Big Brother, Galloway responded: "Not after I've seen those newspaper cuttings."
Instead of contemplating how this stunt has affected Galloway’s career, perhaps the more pertinent question is: How will the left cope if they lose yet another key figure? After Tony Benn’s retirement from Parliament, the belated resignation of Clare Short and the recent deaths of Robin Cook and Mo Mowlam, which political heavyweight remains to champion the causes of the left? The political momentum gathering in Latin America only highlights how fractured and uninspiring the domestic left is.
Galloway was not the first “social commentator” to participate in Celebrity Big Brother. Last year feminist icon and broadcaster Germaine Greer joined the house only to prematurely walk out after only five days. She launched a pitiful attack on Big Brother, calling it a fascist prison. With such a title, did she really expect anything else?
After her departure from the house, Greer was met with a wave of intellectual condescension and exceptional disdain from her peers. So Galloway could have easily foreseen the same, if not worse, for him. Greer did, however, bring a new type of viewer to the show: the so-called intelligentsia. Or rather, she gave them license to dignify and intellectualise their guilty secret. In her wake, Galloway harvested an even more diverse audience. When before has a British reality TV show been under the surveillance of both Al Jezeera and The Washington Post?
Greer, however, was particularly vulnerable to criticism, as in 2001, she is quoted as saying: “Watching Big Brother II is about as dignified as looking through the keyhole in your teenage child's bedroom door. To do it occasionally would be shameful; to get hooked on it is downright depraved.” So her hypocrisy in even considering being a contestant on this very show warrants condemnation.
The voyeur aspect of Big Brother is doubtless a large part of its appeal. Much like the controversial, grotesque series Autopsy, it allows the viewer to indulge their secret sinister desires. It is, in short, the new pornography, an ethical hot potato.
The real issue at stake, however, is whether or not Galloway achieved what he set out to do. If his agenda was simply to contribute to a charity for needy Palestinians, mission accomplished. However, no one is naïve enough to believe that any politician would complete three weeks of surveillance under house arrest with strangers solely for altruistic reasons. Galloway claimed to be raising the profile of his party; yet others have suggested it was more a miscalculated and depraved snatch at celebrity and publicity. No one can argue that Galloway has not broadened the awareness of his own brand and become a household name.
But Galloway insists this was not a mission of self-aggrandizement: “Politicians need to use new and innovative methods to put across our arguments.” In a statement prepared before his entry he avowed: “I’m determined that there are no no-go areas for us and I believe Celebrity Big Brother will be hugely successful.” Well, he was right; the show was hugely successful, for Channel 4. On the night of the final, the ratings were 7.5 million.
I myself guiltily ducked out of dinner with a friend early to immerse myself in the Celebrity Big Brother climax, only to discover that the aerial at my house had collapsed! Frantically I called friends to suss out who was in and willing to put me up, thus purging myself further with comments like, “it’s only for research you understand,” when really, it was much-needed closure from the three weeks of junk TV that I had admittedly been hooked on throughout the dismal month of January.
So even if Galloway regrets his decision to participate in Celebrity Big Brother, I don’t. I enjoyed watching him interact with the colourful array of characters, his feline frolics with Rula, and his cringy dance moves. But most of all, I enjoyed that he did, if nothing else, spark debate amongst the public. Not debate about Iraq, or Tony Blair as he intended, but about politicians’ inability and inertia to connect with the ordinary rank and file Briton, about what is appropriate for an MP to do to gain popularity, and of course, about the most tempestuous celebrity relationship of them all: politics and media.
By Gabrielle Tierney
1st February 2006