Real Job: Authenticity on the Performance, Reception and Study of
This paper considers the place of attraction within
debates on normative citizenship. Reconsidering my research on
public reactions to UK Tory MP Boris Johnson, I ask if apparently
superficial comments indicate how alienated audiences can read
themselves into the world of representative, and represented
politics. John Street warns that it is too early to condemn the
celebrity politician, since there remains a great deal to be
understood about how such a figure can be within specific modes of
media organisation. The Johnson case study shows the idea that
politics should be entertaining does not necessarily contradict what
Corner & Robinson understand as critical/structuralist positions,
that tend to concentrate on information as the touchstone of
democratic communication. As a result, the gulf between structure
and agency in audiences’ negotiations of the political landscape may
not be as wide as it seems.
authenticity, politics, celebrity, fans, public opinion.
This article will consider the role that qualitative,
pleasure focussed audience research, much of it influenced by
theoretical and empirical fan scholarship, can play in addressing
tensions between structure, agency, apathy and engagement in the
field of political communication.
It is inspired by three things; critical reception of
my work on public reactions to a media scandal involving the British
Tory MP Boris Johnson’s in October 2004 (Ruddock, 2006a; 2006b),
John Street’s thoughts on the value of political celebrity as an
object of academic inquiry and means of sparking exchanges between
pluralist, constructivist and structuralist camps within political
communication (2004; 2005), and the desire to reconsider some of my
earlier research on the occasion of the reprinting of Issues,
Images, Impacts: The Media and Campaign ’92 (Lewis, Morgan &
Ruddock, 1992/2006). The latter piece, which used both a survey and
focus groups to assess how US voters understood the Presidential
contest between Bill Clinton, George Bush I and Ross Perot, is best
known for its structuralist conclusion; that voters had rationally
reached the wrong conclusion about Clinton’s policy intentions, due
to the myopic informational and ideological spectrum presented to
them by television in particular. The study also, however, made
tentative, and less recognised comments about the importance of
affective political communication; a theme that can be developed in
the context of recent work on fans that opens positive readings of
intense yet ephemeral bonds with media events. In combination with
Street’s thesis that celebrity politics is a rational, explicable
and even desirable outcome of shifting forms of political
representation, in this piece I revisit my Johnson study to ask how
ostensibly flippant audience indicate how audiences are attracted to
displays of difference that make the political world relevant. This
directly addresses our 1992 complaint that ‘managerial’ politics
discourage participation by propagating the illusion that politics
is about efficiency, not belief. However foolish or calculated his
actions appeared, and however uniformed or superficial public
responses were, somewhere in all of this social class emerged as a
clear rallying point for both his supporters and detractors.
Street’s work informs a distinction between playful
remarks and the ill informed, unstable opinions, that dilute the
quality of democratic speech (Converse 1975). I conclude with the
humble point that “apathetic” or “superficial” political
pronouncements can still have a logic that is worth exploring, and
that the gap between “top down” and “bottom up” studies of political
audiences might not be as wide as it seems. Again following Street,
this is not to celebrate any sort of public reaction to the
political realm, but simply to recognize that even casual
observations have a genealogy. My argument takes on the following
structure; first, I describe how and why Boris Johnson emerged as an
analytical topic. Second, I discuss the media and academic
responses to the research. Third, I consider how Street’s work and
new developments in fan studies help to address some of these
critiques. Finally, I revisit some of the more “superficial” public
remarks, arguing they have a cultural history that explains
Johnson’s infamy. However one may feel about celebrity politicians,
they exist in numbers large enough to suggest something is afoot
beyond any simple collapse of an idealized public sphere. As
respected figures such as Al Gore in the US and Tony Benn in the UK
decide to pursue their interests outside traditional channels of
politics and political communication, it is worth thinking about how
celebrity politicians look to draw audiences before worrying about
Why Boris Johnson?
Journalist, broadcaster, popular historian and
novelist, Boris Johnson enjoys a far higher public profile than
would normally be expected for an opposition MP whose Commons
pedigree traces back no further than 2001. There is no doubting the
public relations acumen of a man who cultivates public affection by
cloaking arch Conservatism and a Herculean capacity for
multi-tasking in a chaotic media image. His persona is cleverly
aesthetic in its aesthetic absences; somehow, the question of how it
is possible to edit the political magazine The Spectator,
write for The Daily Telegraph, research and produce well
received novels and historical studies AND do the work of a
constituency MP and shadow minister gets lost in the aura of
crumpled suits and disheveled, youthfully blond hair, owing more to
pudding bowls, mothers and blunt scissors than Vidal Sassoon. That,
and the familiar figure of the ‘upper class twit’.
Johnson’s affable mask slipped, however, in October
2004. The Spectator published an anonymous leader criticizing
emotional public reactions to the execution of Liverpool born
civilian contractor Ken Bigley at the hands of Iraqi militia. The
magazine represented Merseysiders’ commemoration of Bigley’s passing
as indicative of Britain’s new un-British blame culture. Once a
nation of heroes stoically accepted responsibility for their own
actions. Bigley did not deserve his horrific fate; but he had
decided to ply his trade in a war zone. Did his demise therefore
warrant a two-minute silence before a Premiership football match
between Liverpool and Manchester United? A minute more than is
granted to mark the death of the Commonwealth’s war dead? And was
this evasive public sentimentality a particular problem in
Liverpool? Apparently spontaneous grief was modeled on formulas
developed after the 1989 Hillsborough tragedy, where 96 Liverpool FC
fans had died in an overcrowded football stadium. The earlier
public wake, so the editorial ran, allowed Liverpudlians to avoid
questions about how the fans themselves contributed to the disaster.
This was an offensive and factually incorrect charge
(Liverpool fans were entirely blameless for Hillsborough). As the
author failed to step forward in the scandal that followed, Boris
Johnson accepted full responsibility for the piece in his capacity
as Editor. The Liverpool press was incensed. Merseyside MP Peter
Kilfoyle called for a public apology. He was duly obliged. Tory
leader Michael Howard ordered Johnson North to express his regret in
person. The tarnished star complied – after a fashion. By his own
admission, “Bigley’s demise” made factual errors in underestimating
the numbers killed at Hillsborough. It also repeated allegations
that fans had abused and robbed the dead and dying, long since
discredited as tabloid fantasies. Johnson was sorry for these
hurtful mistakes. He was not, however, sorry that his magazine had
published a commentary on the need to accept responsibility for
one’s actions. Ken Bigley had not deserved to die. Neither had
Captain Robert Falcon Scott in his 1912 attempt to cross the South
Pole. Both men had, however, consciously entered hostile
territory. Bigley, like Scott, should have been prepared to accept
October of that same year, I decided that this story said something
about audiences and their dis/engagement from political issues and
figures. Here, apparently, was an incident that people passionately
cared about, breaking images of civic apathy. Or did they? What
would we find by going beyond media vox pops? Searching for data, I
wrote to Boris Johnson’s Parliamentary office asking if anyone had
written to him about the issue, and if so, could I see the letters?
To my surprise Melissa Crawshay-Williams, who manages Johnson’s
office, immediately agreed the request. May 13th 2004 found me on a
Liverpool bound train staring at over 300 of them. Over the next
months, I made some sense of the letters by using both quantitative
and qualitative methods, presenting my work at the Celebrity Culture
Conference at the University of Paisley in September 2005, MeCCSA
2006, and subsequently publishing in Social Semiotics in
The research, in published form, aimed to assess
structure/agency tensions in looking at how general shapes of
response addressed audiences’ abilities to critique the form as well
as the content of political communication. Categorizing
correspondents’ themes via SPSS produced the following patterns:
1. 40.8% (n=128) of letters agreed with
Spectator/Johnson comments on “Culture of sentimentality”
2. 40.8% (n=128) of praised Johnson’s honesty,
courage, integrity,, authenticity
3. 36.3% (n=114) opposed Michael Howard’s treatment
4. 30.6% (n=96) of letters agreed with negative
depiction of Liverpool and its citizens
5. 30.3% (n=95) of letters praised Johnson’s
performance as public political/media figure
6. 17.5% (n=55) of letters agreed with Spectator
comments on Ken Bigley
7. 16.2 % (n=51) of letters criticized “political
8. 15% (n=47) of letter writers claimed to speak
for a “silent majority”
9. 13.4% (n=42) of letters criticized “media hype”
10.12.7% (n=40) of letters criticized the reception
Johnson was given by Paul Bigley/the people of Liverpool on his
11. 9.2% (n=29) of letters blamed Liverpool fans for
On one hand, the letters showed a surprising trend.
Despite the near universal public venom directed at the errant MP in
the media, most of the people who had written to him had done so to
express support. The reason for this seemed to be that in taking
his public gaffe on the chin, Johnson shone as a rough diamond in
the flotsam of rhetorically evasive political figures.
However, if this enthusiasm contained a latent
critique of spin, ergo the colonization of politics by media
management, at the same time there was evidence that many of the
writers had only a vague sense of how the scandal, which of course
was entirely a media matter, had actually played itself out.
Sizeable minorities missed Johnson’s apology to Liverpool. When
writers addressed the nature of mediated politics, it was to express
the forlorn hope that one day politics could happen face to face
In October 2005, I was asked to discuss the project
on Radio 4’s Thinking Allowed, a program that reviews
developments in the social sciences for a general audience hosted by
sociology professor Laurie Taylor. October 12’s edition featured a
discussion on public authenticity, and the show’s producers thought
the Johnson research relevant. I subsequently spent around twelve
minutes debating relations between authenticity and performance in
politics (the main point being that real is not something you
“have”, it’s something you “do”) with sceptical Times
journalist Andrew Pearce and Professor Taylor.
Tuning in the following week, I was aurally assaulted
by a listener’s dismissive review:
I’ve just listened to someone discussing if Boris
Johnson is a real person. Are you sure he is authentic?
This attack sided with Pearce in construing my work
as an entirely misguided effort to rescue something of worth from
the superficiality of celebrity politics. My on-air speculation
that fan communities might provide models for the way that we would
like citizens to think, act and engage sealed my own public fate; I
was a fake scholar making something out of nothing about a fake
politician via the fakest part of a fake discipline.
Although public ridicule goes with media studies
territory, it is still useful to consider how generic hostility to
the discipline played out here. First, subsequent events
strengthened the claim that I had chosen to study someone who was
merely playing at politics. In 2004, Johnson was a novice MP
holding a minor position (Shadow Minister for Culture) in a party
that could barely define its relevance to contemporary Britain. Yet
marginality suited a figure who dabbled in politics. Local academic
Peter Stoney urged Liverpudlians to ignore the comments of a
political lightweight (Stoney, 2004). Developments in October 2005
revealed that Johnson himself shared these sentiments. As David
Cameron campaigned to become Tory party leader, so it was whispered
that Johnson would be asked the rejoin the shadow cabinet (having
been dismissed by Michael Howard in late 2004). Johnson appeared
determined to do the job properly this time around:
…Mr. Johnson appears to have accepted that he can no
longer moonlight as journalist and politician, revealing that his
lust for power has eclipsed his desire to be a high profile
editor…Mr. Johnson will tell (Radio 4 presenter) Sue Lawley that he
“would choose politics” over journalism when the time was right.
Retrospectively, we would have to conclude, then,
that at the time of the Spectator article, Johnson was toying
with politics. Worse still, his apologies were indeed
spin-in-action. Much of the support offered in the letters was
charged by the impression that Johnson’s remorse was genuine. As
one writer put it:
I was incensed to read yet more negative comments
about the city I love. We’re always copping it in the media, and
we’re sick of it. But it takes a big man to say sorry, and an even
bigger man to say sorry face-to-face.
At the time, Johnson echoed the importance of facing
up to things in the flesh:
…having been to Liverpool, and having stood eyeball
to glistening eyeball with those who felt they deserved an apology,
I am glad I went, and I think at least some of them are a bit glad
that I went too. (Johnson, 2004).
On Thinking Allowed, Andrew Pearce mocked this
faux humility. Johnson was not sorry for a word of the article, and
he had gagged on every syllable of the Howard-induced apology. This
was no moment of sincerity in an otherwise glib political world.
When in the Lawley radio interview Johnson claimed that in hindsight
he wished he had not visited Merseyside, it seemed that Pearce was
At this juncture, it seemed that ‘structuralist’
accounts of political communication were appropriate. How could one
find anything of value in ‘readings’ of a charade that fell for the
very spin that the letter writers despised?
None of the general scepticism directed at my Johnson
study came as a surprise. It made perfect sense within a public
forum accepting that political ignorance and apathy are facts, and
that media studies offers no useful reflections on this state of
affairs. But peer reaction was often more hostile. The title of
the Social Semiotics piece won a place in the satirical magazine
Private Eye’s “Pseud’s Corner”, a regular feature lampooning
academe’s tendency to “over-egg” with arcane jargon. What made this
surprising was that the title had been reported to the editors by a
certain John MacInnes, who had published an essay in the very same
edition of Social Semiotics (2006).
More substantially, exploring the Johnson letters as
expressions of ‘fandom’ proved controversial, as it seemed the
writers lacked the commitment and knowledge needed to warrant the
label. This again gestured toward the structuralist conclusion
that what the letters evidenced, if anything, was how poorly
equipped audiences were to participate in politics. At first blush,
the fan shift made sense as many of the letters primarily occupied
affective spaces. As the numbers revealed, the joint most popular
motivation for writing to Johnson was to express feelings of
admiration. It was this emotional content that, apparently, shoved
many into the increasingly rare act of physically writing to an MP.
Apparently, then, Johnson’s Liverpool adventure enabled
Forms of political participation in which fans
position(ed) themselves in cultural and political debates in
relation to their own values and beliefs…(also) providing spaces
of…participation for those…disenfranchised by concepts of
traditional liberal (politics) (Sandvoss, 2003. 170-171).
Certainly in this regard, Johnson allowed his “fans”
to redraw the political map using their own co-ordinates:
How come you’re a Tory? You always seem to make
sense…I’ve grown up thinking that all Tories I happen upon haven’t
got an original thought in their body. But you continue to be witty
and strangely alluring…if anyone can explain the whole Tory ideals
thing to me, it’s got to be you. (female, North of England).
Though implacably opposed to your politics…I fully
concur with the views that you and your journal recently expressed…I
don’t think you’re a real Tory….I think you’re a sort of anarcho-liberal
and great entertainment (male, London).
However, presenting these ideas at the 2006 MECCSA
conference (Ruddock, 2006b), I was confronted with the critique that
fandom implies a sense of commitment that appeared absent from these
letters. A comparison with Will Brooker’s research on Star Wars
fans (2002) illustrates the point. For many filmgoers, the original
trilogy was the most profound cultural experience of the 20th
century. A major symbolic resource for making sense of the self and
the world, Star Wars came to embody a series of everyday
moral and political positions. These ideologies were not, however,
“in” the films. Starved of fresh content for over 20 years, fans
generated vast quantities of their own material to keep treasured
characters and stories alive. This creative activity took on a life
of its own. So, when George Lucas finally ended his symbolic
drought with The Phantom Menace, many rejected the prequel as
a betrayal of his own legacy. The audience’s commitment was
theological. Having spent two decades pouring over the original
texts, absorbing every detail, exhausting every possibility for what
they could mean, Star Wars fans attained a feeling of
deity-like ownership. They cared more about Star Wars than
its creator. But they also knew more about it.
“Borisphiles”, in my first reading of their work, lacked this
omnipotent aura. Many were unaware that Johnson had not actually
written the offending editorial. Those embracing criticisms of
Liverpool were similarly oblivious to Johnson’s denunciation of his
In this respect, they resembled the ersatz fans that Giulianotti
blames for diluting the relevance of British football as a source of
authentic experience and expression (2002). Giulianotti paints the
majority of soccer “fans” as Johnny/Jenny come-latelies drawn as
moths to the flame of a media spectacle. They are fascinated by the
carnivalesque displays of commitment performed by “authentic” fans,
those who remember the days of standing on concrete terraces
whatever the weather or quality of play. Yet this is a transient
sort of captivation. The flaneurs neither understand nor care about
the game. As a result, they will soon move along. Turning to
Borisphiles, lack of attention to the narrative of the scandal
paints a picture of the car-crash rubber necker, not the citizen.
Indeed the letter writers could be described as being
closer to Dayan’s “almost” public (2001) than Brooker’s fans. The
categories are similar. “Almost publics” affect commitment. Writing
to an MP does display an unusual level of engagement. Within the
almost public, however, this “caring” is undermined by an
ephemerality and flippancy. In this regard, it is interesting that
a number of writers were keen to point to the superficiality of the
scandal. One did so in verse.
Oh Boris Johnson
What can you do?
Opened your gob again
What will they do to you?
Mind you no-one’s perfect
It’s just a little impasse
But think twice before you open it
Or you’ll sound like a silly Arse!
I still love you Boris.
But as I reflected on the project, I began to wonder
how my own methods and sensibilities may have contributed to the
conclusion that the “Borisphiles” were neither ‘proper’ citizens nor
‘proper’ fans. Their letters, after all, represented tiny clues
about the lives they led. Who was to say that if they knew little
about the Bigley scandal, or representative politics, that they were
not also involved in other less recognized forms of citizenship?
Alternatively, if the writers did pay so little attention to
mediated politics, what was it about Johnson that piqued their
interest? In other words, the fact of the writing indicated
that processes were at play that may illuminate how celebrity
politics works; processes that were certainly worth exploring
regardless of the banalities and inaccuracies of anything that was
realized that whatever my efforts to give a broad structural shape
to divergent audience comments, in turn inspired by my ongoing
argument that quantitative methods offer much to the analysis of
culture (Ruddock, 2001), my thoughts and conclusions were haunted by
a particular quote: “As a boy I loved Jennings books.
What I really want to know about is this: do they really have
pillow fights at prep schools?” Of all of the topics that could
have been raised vis-ŕ-vis the Johnson/Liverpool rumble, the writer
chose to center on how closely the MP’s experiences mirrored
fictional accounts of British public (i.e. residential fee-paying)
school life. The a priori assumptions of the study were that the
Spectator’s attack on “excessive mourning” was also an assault
on politics from below. Public commemorations of Hillsborough
represented organic reactions to political issues giving ordinary
people a real visibility (Walter, 1991). Depicting the Spectator
scandal as nothing more than a jolly jape gone wrong entirely missed
the point, or so I thought.
I don’t want to necessarily abandon this conclusion;
but I do want to reflect on how, in its original conception, my
decision to identify this as an “inappropriate” expression ignored
important issues on how to handle data and contemporary debates on
fan cultures. Taking the latter point, my distaste for the comment
echoed the tendency to divide “good” and “bad” audiences that had
afflicted much of the groundbreaking fan work. Despite its canonic
status, Matt Hills (2002) criticized Henry Jenkins’ Textual
Poachers (1993) for allowing its empirical content to be driven
by the desire to prove the value of fan communities. In privileging
his political/academic project over the voices of the people he
studied, Jenkins produced a calculative vision of fandom bearing
little resemblance to the affective rough and tumble of actual fan
experience. Conversely, Jonathan Gray (2003) is more interested in
exploring ‘bad’ audiences. Given that most of our media experiences
fall outside the fan spectrum, where we watch, listen of read simply
to pass the time, or because we have no choice, the time has come
for audience researchers to explore the cultural logic of the
relatively uncommitted. In this shifting context, my instant
dismissal of an apparently superficial comment appeared premature.
Exploring the issue of how to treat data further, it is important to
reflect on the wisdom of objectifying comments that were not written
with the contemplation of citizenship in mind. Having access to the
letters alone, it is not clear where the data falls on the
public/private continuum. If some acknowledged the fact that they
were writing to a public figure, others used familiarity tones more
characteristic of personal correspondence. Expecting the letters to
present considered reflections on citizenship was a bit like
commanding David Cameron to explain, in technical detail, his
understanding of what replacing the pound with the Euro would do to
the UK economy on The Jonathan Ross Show.
Although the idea that audiences can and should be allowed to speak
for themselves can still be used to good effect (see, for example,
Alan McKee’s work on pornography, 2005), most of the time empirical
researchers accept that they do not simply “find” what people think,
but build encounters that impact how audiences process their media
relations. Recent studies by Philo & Berry (2004) and Kitzinger
(2004) were designed to challenge and work on, rather than measure,
what people know and think about real life issues (the Israeli
occupation of Palestine. and child sex abuse, respectively). In one
memorable section of their book, Philo & Berry hound a focus group
participant who at first argues that television news is biased
against Israel. Having performed an extensive content analysis, the
authors are morally certain that this is not true. They firmly
believe that the respondent has not understood what they are asking
of him. As a result, they refuse to accept his first as his final
answer, having him revisit the question and the footage. Kitzinger
similarly uses the technique of producing interview transcripts,
then having interviewees re-read and reflect upon their own
comments. As a result, her project is as much about helping people
to re-organize their mental maps of what sexual abuse is, who does
it and where it happens. Hills follows suit in his research on
cyclical fandom (2005). Using a series of regularly scheduled
individual interviews, he encourages participants not simply to
report on, but work up their narratives of media taste.
These methods do not reflect the desire to check
analysis against the audience to ensure that the researcher has “got
things right”; nor do they allow editing that proves the culturalist
case. Instead, they aspire to echo the fluidity of cultural
processes. The point here is that the “pillow fight” comment does
not necessarily speak for itself, in terms of where it comes from
and what it means, and even if it did, we would still have to ask,
by what logic did it appear sensible? This interrogative demeanour
is hard to simulate in archival work. However, the changing shape
of writing on political communication, fandom and relations between
the concepts do allow a deeper reflection on the quote, something I
think I owe to both the writer and an MP who generously granted
access to valuable data. Succinctly, I would hypothesize that the
“Jennings” comparison might show how someone perceived a fellow
traveller in an otherwise alien world of electoral politics. In
what follows, I explore the possibility that this off the cuff
question has a cultural history. Johnson’s “calamitous” performance
(however calculated the imbroglio truly was) worked by couching the
image of the maverick MP within an honorific tradition of English
amateurism, for which the ‘naughty public schoolboy’ is a common
avatar. This image reintroduced class as a meaningful idea that not
only ‘attracted’ his supporters, but also rallied opponents who felt
their voices were rarely heard in public.
Or perhaps the writer just really liked Jennings
John Corner: Structure, agency & celebrity politics.
Suspending the second possibility, John Street’s work
on the mapping of political communication, and the normative role
that celebrity can play in democratic speech, provides a first means
of investing the “Jennings” comment with a relevance that is worth
exploring. Street’s typology, which marshals scholarship on the
media/politics nexus into the camps of pluralism, constructivism and
structuralism, has been criticized as a crude simplification,
particularly in its division between the latter two areas (Corner &
Robinson, 2005). However, in conjunction with his writing on
celebrity, Street’s usefully calls for greater attention to issues
of affect in what counts as political dialogue proper.
Street’s distinction between pluralism (with its
assumption that political communication is a clearly demarcated area
whose task is to show how effective communication makes rational
links between aspiration and choice within electoral politics),
constructivism (where the media are seen to constitute rather than
represent the political, even if the latter retains structures
having an independent existence) and structuralism (which insists on
the economic determination of symbolic forms) is less important than
his call for dialogue between “competing accounts of…communication …
the political … and the balance … between structure and agency”
(18). This is clearer in his earlier work on politicians who court
celebrity, celebrities who woo office, and showbiz stars who, like
fame, either seek or have the activist mantle thrust upon them
As with the later work, Street’s efforts to define
the range of celebrity politics is not flawless. He identifies two
sorts of celebrity politicians. First, we have elected officials
who seek credibility by blagging popular culture. UK MP George
Galloway’s participation in the 2006 Celebrity Big Brother
springs to mind. Second, we have celebrities who use their fame to
run for electoral office; Arnold Schwarzenegger is the most obvious
example, although in Britain Glenda Jackson also fits the bill.
Quite how “Gopher” from The Love Boat parlayed his clumsy
asexual charm into a career as a hawkish Republican Senator is
anyone’s guess. Finally, we have celebrities who use their public
profile as a platform for political activism, as in the cases of Bob
Geldof and Bono (Street, 2002).
To illustrate the difficulty of giving order to a
fluid field, it is not to dismiss Street’s work to argue that his
typology is not exhaustive. Al Gore currently embodies all three
shades of celebrity politics in his activities around An
Inconvenient Truth. The former US Vice President has translated
his political capital into cinematic success. Claiming no
ideological axe to grind, Gore remains equivocal as to whether his
currency may be reconverted into a second tilt at the Whitehouse.
The bigger point, however, is that Street believes it is important
to examine how celebrity politics is structurally possible (and
here, Babcock and Whitehouse (2005) have described how “The
Governator”’s success had as much to do with his evasion of FCC
equal time regulations via talk-shows as it did personal charisma)
and why exactly it raises such ire, given that it has historical
However, Street also recognizes that explaining
celebrity politics as predictable outcome of media organization
means little to those whose “main objection … is based on two
elements. The first has to do with the excess attention given to
image and appearance, and the second has to do with the irrelevance
of the expertise which the celebrities possess” (2004: 441).
Street’s solution occupies the space between variant definitions of
what “representation” means in “political representation”. The term
either means standing for, or acting for. Critics of celebrity
politics tout court tend to prefer the latter. Here,
political representation refers to a person’s ability to act in the
interests of those he or she represents. There is no necessary
connection between serving the people and appearing to be one of
them. Celebrity politicians, so the critique runs, create the
erroneous impression that standing for, or resembling silent yet
widely held public sentiment, is tantamount to acting in its
interest. We can return to George Galloway to explain the
difference. The pugilistic Scot claimed his reality television
foray was designed to give the anti-Iraq war lobby a higher
profile. One can demur for two reasons. The first was that it was
hard to see what impersonating Elvis and a cat, and engaging in
running battles with glamour model Jody Marsh and disgraced light
entertainer Michael Barrymore, did to promote peace. Second,
Parliamentary colleagues asked who was acting in the interests of
Galloway’s constituents during the MP’s televised sojourn.
Against representational critiques, Street simply
offers that stylistic political performances aimed at winning
audience empathy have ever been a part of the democratic process,
and indeed represent an invaluable shorthand in a complicated world
of policy and ideology: “Just as art creates a version of reality,
making present what is otherwise absent … political power is a
product of style and creativity” (2004: 445). There is no space
here to reflect on the rights and wrongs of Galloway’s argument.
However, what we can say is that if we accept that communication is
material, then to symbolically ‘stand’ for something is a form of
The idea that a politics of attraction is not an
anathema to democracy-in fact, quite the reverse-directs attention
to one of the less considered parts of Images/Issues/Impacts: the
Media and Campaign ’92. The study is habitually located within
the corpus of what Corner & Robinson (2005) identify as “critically
structuralist” research. Two of the authors, Lewis and Morgan, have
based their careers on arguing that the capitalist bias of US media
systematically narrows the range of views and experiences offered to
audiences. Indeed, the quantitative part of the report was the
second of three surveys that charted correlations between political
opinion and factual error on the behalf of those polled (Morgan,
Lewis & Jhally, 1991; 1999). In this fashion,
Images/Issues/Impacts aimed to intervene in a poll dominated
campaign by looking not only what people thought, but what they knew
about candidates Clinton, Bush I and Perot .
Our survey complemented the general thrust of the
work that emerged from the University of Massachusett’s Centre for
Mass Communications Research: the majority of respondents
erroneously believed that candidate Clinton intended to pursue an
agenda based on high welfare expenditure, funded in part by higher
taxation, and the erosion of tough crime legislation . But given
the limited range of political viewpoints on offer, it was easy to
see why, when asked about his policies, most of the sample were wont
to paint Clinton as far more left of centre than was truly the
case. The narrow spectrum also led to the strongly held, but
ultimately misplaced belief that in Campaign ’92 voters should and
would act on issues, not ideology.
Yet the report was not necessarily a call for
more fact based news discourse. Some years later, Ekstrom (2002)
argued that television news never has and never will be a
particularly efficient vehicle for this sort of knowledge, making it
unfair to judge its output exclusively on informational criteria.
The focus group section of the Images/Issues/Impacts hinted
at a move in this direction in asserting the importance of style in
politics. The idea of voting on issues made little sense when the
sample demonstrably knew so little of what the candidates planned to
do about the economy, welfare and law and order. But even if they
had, politics is rarely a matter of right and wrong; we argued that
the reality of policy is that some groups are favoured over others.
This was reflected by working class respondents who
saw politics as a system wherein their opinions, knowledge or
whatever counted for nothing:
This is the first year I’m saying, should I vote?
Whoever they want gets in there. I’ve always believed that if they
don’t want you in there, then you don’t get in. If they want a
person in there, if I vote or nobody votes, they’ll get in there.
I feel like politicians are out of touch. I believe
that if you cannot live like me, then you cannot serve me. If you
have not lived my life, then you don’t know how to serve me.
In the context of the criticisms we made about the
inadequacy of media coverage, these comments indicated a perfectly
sensible response to a situation in which voters were aware that
they had been robbed of the tools to make issue based decisions.
The idea that the successful candidate would be chosen by the
system, not voters, was an entirely reasonable reaction to a
campaign between candidates who varied little in what they planned
to do. American voters witnessed the same dynamic in the Bush
II/Kerry race; run along the Mekong Delta since military service
provided the only chink of light between the candidates in action
It was therefore unsurprising that in 1992 people
turned to emotional, interpersonal criteria drawing on standing for
understandings of representation in making their decisions:
One of the things I respect most about Clinton the
man is his beginnings, where he came from. You’ve got to understand
where he came from. I mean, we all know that his early childhood was
not a good one, and I think that a guy like Clinton serves as a good
role model, and I think if we’re looking for anything today, we’re
looking for people to be role models.
The idea of choosing a candidate based on where he or
she comes from, on the understanding that this will shape their
general world view that will in turn guide policy decisions, did not
contradict our final conclusion:
What it is reasonable to do is to expect voters to
make informed decisions based on their understanding of a
candidate’s basic political philosophy; for example, whether he or
she believes in redistributive social policy or laissez-faire
economics. In other words, the democratic system runs through, not
in spite of, ideology. We vote for the people who we feel best
represent the way we think social life should be conducted, or, to
put it another way, who are closest to us ideologically. While many
within the news media tend to portray political ideologies as
negative and unnecessarily dogmatic, we would argue that ideology
actually functions as an invaluable form of political shorthand
which allows candidates to succinctly communicate the essential
elements of their platforms to the electorate.
What we failed to do is to consider how this
“political shorthand” might run best through the integration of
politics and entertainment; surprising give Lewis’ writing on the
damage caused by the lack of narrative in news (1991). And it is
with this failure in mind that Johnson became relevant, as a public
figure whose infamy rested on a performance of difference.
Calculated or not, Johnson’s words, actions and style reintroduced
class as an issue at a time when both his own party and the ruling
Labour government wished it away. Many audience researchers have
argued that our field should spend more time considering casual
media engagements. In this sense, the fact that the letters were
mostly written by people who did not fit the fan or citizen profile
makes them a valuable resource. In outlining what Johnson had stood
for, the writers gave clues about how people would like political
communication to work. In this symbolically standing for
something acts, recasting the political as a realm of choice and
action, not fate.
Proper Citizens: Commitment, Community, Network.
The problem with dismissing “Borisphiles” as
inauthentic citizens is that it is difficult to say what the real
deal would look like. The citizen/fan metaphor changes what counts
as proper political activity. Van Zoonen’s call for a “fan
democracy” (2003) is premised on the importance of integrating
emotional content and political discourse. Coleman (2005) concurs.
Within current arrangements, the only time when we are interpolated
as citizens is when we stand alone in the voting booth. This is an
antiseptic, anomic experience that simply does not feel right. As
Barry Richards (2004) continues, we can only expect to take an
interest in politics when we are emotionally invested in its form
and content. These ideas have been echoed in public discussions of
proposed “citizenship tests” on migrants to the UK. There are two
problems with administering exams on politics, history and culture
to would be Brits. First, may people who are already “in” would
probably fail them. Second, citizenship is an emotional obligation
that cannot be measured by what people know (Harkin, 2005).
Unfortunately, likening authentic citizenship to
fandom does not necessarily clarify the picture. There is some
question over what it means to be a proper fan turning on clashes
between “depth” and “surface” models. This is a useful obstacle, as
it allows us to overturn Dayan’s critique of the “almost” public by
arguing for the efficacy of ephemeral networks rather than
structured communities of engagement.
Take “intensity”. As Jancovich points out, the heat
fan cultures generate often has profoundly undemocratic outcomes.
Battling to prove they belong, fans have little truck with those who
do not share their mode of investment. Honohan’s “collegial”
citizenship model (2003) portrays this sort of intensity as an
anathema to democracies that have to deal with extreme difference.
The object of commitment should be the process of communication
between constituencies, not the values within each. Intense fandom
is therefore an inappropriate model for citizenship. This is made
explicit in Tamar Sorek’s analysis of relations between “community”
and “enclave” among Arab football fans in Israel (2003). Here, the
preservation of fan identity depends on its excommunication from the
political realities of Arab life. Unlike Brooker’s Star Wars
fans, intensity is preserved and strengthened by a determined effort
to divorce football from everything else. In my own work, I have
used the enclave idea to argue that fan commitments mean that racial
politics can be acknowledged, but not discussed or processed in
football fanspeak (Ruddock, 2005).
Intensity and depth might therefore make for worse
politics. Shemtov’s research into local, single-issue political
organizations (2003) identifies the importance of “goal expansion”
in achieving a sustainable public presence. Such groups, often
formed around very specific environmental concerns, are vital places
where people develop bonds of loyalty and empowerment that are vital
to civic engagement. However, this engagement can only be
maintained insofar as these local concerns can be translated into
the interests of other groups. In other words, NIMBY activism can
only continue if it is willing to abandon the initial object of its
Hence, ephemerality can be a positive civic
attribute. The idea that citizenship, like fandom, should be
related to depth models of community, where co-dependence is
grounded in shared values, is at odds with the ontology of
globalized politics (Stevenson, 2003). This pushes us toward
“network” thinking, where cultural experiences and ties come to
resemble speed dating; our connections are short, but intense (Wittels,
However, “network” thinking is consistent with Matt
Hills’ notion of cyclical fandom (2005). Hills argues that fandom
is more about process than object. Many of the fans that have been
studied are obligated to an external “thing” over which in many ways
they exert no control. For example, Giulianotti (2005) points to
the frequent claims from football supporters that they have no
choice other than to continue following their team. Cyclical fandom
is a more individual commitment to a journey of self-development,
facilitated by a movement between objects. In reality, media
audiences are fans of several things. Fandom thus features a cast
of changing objects that are stitched together into a life
narrative. But this is not a functionalist claim. For Hills’
interviewees, the fundamental pleasure of being a fan lies in the
moment of surprise, of discovering a new object that becomes the
focus of affective and cognitive investment. The cyclical fan,
then, is open to the idea that an external environment can rewrite
what he/she cares about and why.
This tunes with Kai Erikson’s presentation of
“network” as an anti-functionalist means of understanding totality.
Erickson’s essay makes three points that are relevant to a positive
reading of ephemeral fandom. First, it acknowledges that cultural
critique needs the idea of the whole, while at the same time
recognizing that culture is not reducible to neatly defined
influence or logic. Second, it offers a non-hierarchical model were
power circulates between actors within a network, rather than being
a quality of an overarching system. Third, as networks are
conceived as relations between actors, rather than relations between
actors and an external meta-narrative, and wherein the consequences
of these networks are more than the sum of the intentions and needs
of each actor, networks have the potential for infinite expansion.
This expansive definition of cultural connection and experience is
in keeping with Hills’ work, which questions the possibility of
deciding where fandom begins and ends, and the idea that “authentic”
citizenship has yet to be defined. Taking these points in
combination, is it possible that Johnson provided a moment of
surprise for people generally uninterested in electoral politics?
And does this indicate how the latter sphere might expand to connect
with citizens who are not naturally ‘hot’ for politics? These are
truly questions for further research, but what we can do is discuss
what it was about this incident that lit the flame.
In defence of Borisphiles
If the lack of knowledge about what Boris Johnson
really said and did in the Liverpool scandal signifies a general
lack of interest in media coverage of politics, then why go to the
trouble of writing to an MP? Perhaps the writers recognized a
fellow amateur. Johnson made two professional gaffes. As an
editor, he had allowed the publication of an article containing
serious factual errors. As a politician, he had been stupid enough
to say “mea culpa”. The act of publicly admitting a public screw-up
drew admiration. As evidenced by the first writer quoted, this was
even true for the minority of correspondents who wrote to chastise
Johnson over the Spectator piece. For others, Johnson’s
professional failure as journalist and politician cohered into a
much more successful performance of celebrity containing a
distinctively English twist.
You yourself would be the first to admit that certain
aspects of the first article were ill-advised…but to your immense
credit you had the good grace to sincerely apologise. We all drop
clangers…there must be many people in Liverpool and elsewhere who
feel about you as I do, but unlike myself may not write and tell you
so. I wish there were more like you in political life. I feel that
your approach to life and politics is refreshing. I love your self
deprecating sense of humour. No Boris, don’t ever change mate.
You are the witty, humourous human face of politics…a
counterbalance to excessive solemnity (the curse of contemporary
Britain). (Male, West Midlands).
While you acquitted yourself well eating humble pie
and I admire you, I fear for you in “Have I Got News For You” as
those two, Merton and Hislop, will pull you to bits. But I know
that our fears are unjustified as you will come out of it in the
inimitable manner that you are able to command. (Male, SW England).
These comments depict Johnson as escaping his Mersey
maelstrom via the charming knack of not taking life too seriously.
In doing so, they access an affection for “bumbling through” which
Nick Cull (2002) sees as a central to the particularly English taste
for WW II POW films.
This is a useful comparison as it combines amateurism
with an interest in authenticity. British POW films aspired to
empirical realism in using real life stories, and employing the
people who lived them as technical advisors. This empirical clout
naturalized the ideological project of building an upper class image
of English ingenuity. Often, POW camps were portrayed as extensions
of the public school experience, where Nazi overlords were nothing
more than especially harsh matrons (Cull, 2002).
Johnson’s bumbling public schoolboy persona was
explicitly referenced by one of his Liverpool critics:
The Boris Johnson episode was simply a case of a
public schoolboy getting it wrong yet again. He is not a serious
commentator and we should treat him with the contempt he deserves,
and ignore him. (Stoney, 2004)
But Borisphiles were more prone to read the public
school template in positive terms:
Dear Boris (Mr. Johnson seems too formal): What is
all this fuss? (The media) probably attack you because of your
background, schooling, wit and personality. A bright spark indeed
in a sea of smiley, insincere, namby-pamby greyness. Don’t change a
thing-least of all you glorious hair! (Female, home counties)
Others connected this to a tradition of English
We seem to have moved, collectively, from the cult of
hero (Nelson, Douglas Bader and Bobby Moore) to the cult of victim.
(Unknown, south coast).
Here we see the POW theme explicitly invoked.
Douglas Bader is an archetype for English “make do” ingenuity.
Despite losing both legs in a flying accident, Bader was allowed to
re-enlist in the RAF during WWII. Shot down over France, so
frequent were Bader’s escape attempts that he was eventually held in
to the infamous Colditz, placing him at the centre of POW mythology.
The WWII/public school theme emerges again among
those who cast Johnson’s trials in Churchillian terms:
You will rise again. Winston Churchill suffered
wilderness years. He was more effective and impressive
afterwards-and how! (female, south coast)
Think of Churchill. At your age, as I remember, he
was sacked over the Dardanelles. It must have seemed as if
everything was over. (Male, south coast)
It has been said…that Churchill had a sense of
destiny throughout his Parliamentary career. However, on several
occasions he had to regroup and reposition, and fight off the black
dog-depression as well as his enemies. I hope you and your loved
ones are able to overcome the current crisis (male, Oxfordshire)
Churchill’s schooling at Harrow has been portrayed as
central to the formulation of a maverick political career born of
instinct rather then intellect (see for example Richard
Attenborough’s 1972 Young Winston). For some Borisphiles,
these public school/WWII themes enabled them to narrate the
Liverpool incident as a marker of a conventionally English
So why not ask about pillow fights and prep schools?
At the very least, the question locates why a lot of people cared
about this story. But what does this say about power? Cull’s
analysis begins from the 1996 European Football Championships, where
England fans adopted the theme from The Great Escape as their
anthem. This, to Cull, represented; a. the importance of the POW
myth to English nationalism and b. historical amnesia. For The
Great Escape represents the exact moment when POW films stopped
being about Englishness. Steve McQueen steals the show.
Representation working class and Eastern European characters, and
mass murder, the movie also ended the image of the WWII POW
experience as a gentlemanly game of catch. Similarly with regard to
Liverpool, regarding Johnson’s actions as a charming shambles evades
the persuasive charge that it represented a calculated strategy to
play to the Tory heartland.
The problem with Cull’s argument is that what The
Great Escape was as a piece of film history and what it is as a
cultural resource might be two different things. We could only know
this by looking at the life world of Euro ’96 fans. In similar
fashion, while it is easy to see Borisphiles as unwitting victims of
a media savvy political showman, Johnson’s intellectual and
stylistic acumen only partly explains why he struck a chord. At the
very least, that it did raise all sorts of questions about why other
politicians and political issues are less engaging. Just as asking
if they have pillow fights at prep schools makes sense, so too does
studying why the question gets asked in the first place.
concluded that politics is rarely a matter of good or bad, but good
or bad for whom? Media politics needs clearly symbolized
ideological differences between candidates. If this is so, then the
Johnson scandal an exemplar. If we look at the people and events
that draw audiences by taking politics into the popular; Arnold
Schwarzenegger, George Galloway, Al Gore or Tony Benn, the common
denominator is a willingness to represent difference; the immigrant,
the maverick, the insider who decides the system has lost its
relevance It is far from clear if Galloway’s Big Brother strategy
achieved the goals he intended, but what it did do is raise the
question of where politics should happen, how politicians should
behave, and even who they should be.
In the Clinton/Bush/Perot study, we complained that
aspirations toward managerial politics made little sense to voters
for whom ideological difference still mattered. This being the
case, we felt that the presence of a clearly labeled class discourse
could only have helped make mediated politics more relevant. The
“pillow fight” quote does show how class was at least visible in the
Johnson scandal. But a wider view shows that this was not a
discourse the showman controlled. Relatives of the Hillsborough
victims claimed that the MP’s visit and apology to Liverpool were
acts calculated to play to the southern upper middle class Tory
heartland. In doing so, they projected themselves beyond local
issue politics onto a national stage. Between these reactions, we
can see how Johnson productively polarized audiences; a matter of
great significance given David Cameron’s latest efforts to rebrand
Conservatism as classless, not class-based. Hence in drawing an
audience, no matter how ephemeral, Johnson manifested class as a
political issue that is far from exhausted. Perhaps soon after
writing his/her letter, the Jennings fan returned to a dream world
of public school nostalgia; but not before he/she indicated how
beneath the factual confusion of the Johnson scandal, the matter of
what representation means in politics did become visible. The
Member for Henley-On-Thames indeed “stood for” many things, but in
doing so he also “acted for” those who did not share his politics in
giving them a public platform. That is as real as it gets.
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My first inclination was to contact the Daily Post
and Liverpool Echo to arrange access to all of the
letters submitted by readers during the affair. The only
ones available were those published. Boris Johnson’s
office, in contrast, had kept, filed and responded to every
letter sent. I have often been asked if it is possible that
the MP had selected a sample of letters that he wanted me to
see. I do not think he did. Many of the letters painted an
unflattering picture of Johnson supporters. For example,
the clash with Jewish Tory leader Michael Howard prompted a
number of openly anti-Semitic missives. Also, the research
was conducted in the midst of a general election campaign.
Johnson and his staff had better things to do than worry
about what I might say about Liverpool. Of course his
openness was also entirely in keeping with his central line
on the whole affair; the need to be face up to one’s
“Scouse” is a colloquial term for “of Liverpool origin”.
“Jennings” here refers to an 11-year-old public schoolboy
who was the eponymous hero of a series of children’s books
written by Anthony Buckeridge, most of which were produced
in the 50s and 60s.
Jonathan Ross, who has styled himself as the UK’s David
Letterman, has a late night talkshow on BBC1. Its stock
guests are drawn from show business. In 2006, David
Cameron, the 39-year-old newly elected leader of the
opposition Tory party, was asked to appear. The ensuing
interview focussed on the question of whether Cameron
harboured masturbatory fantasies about his political
ancestor, Margaret Thatcher.
Contact (by email):
Andy Ruddock is a
Lecturer in the School of English, Communication & Performance
Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia.