Unless you’ve been under a rock for the past twenty-four hours you will be aware that a lot of fuss has been made about a certain Prime Minister calling one of the residents of Rochdale a “bigot”. Indeed, this fuss appears quite capable of completely derailing the already failing Labour election campaign and knocking them out of the race entirely.
Yet am I the only one out there who agrees with Gordon Brown?
The most important thing to take away from the “Bigot-gate” incident is not that Brown was caught calling a Labour supporter a “bigot” when he left his SKY News microphone turned on after waving her goodbye, but that what he in fact said was this:
When asked what Duffy had said that had made the meet-and-greet such a “disaster”, he said, quite hurriedly, trying to short-hand his explanation: “oh everything - she’s just a sort of bigoted woman…said she used to be Labour”.
The difference between saying “she is a bigoted woman” and “she’s just a sort of bigoted woman” are immense. In the one case you are dismissing a person entirely, whilst in the other you are stating a vague feeling about what was said and why it left a bad taste in your mouth. Not that she is a bigot, but that what she said was “sort of bigoted” and it was surprising coming from a woman who “said she used to be Labour”.
And on this point Brown was absolutely spot on. Duffy was not some misunderstood victim of a cruel and intolerant monster. She was a woman who, in the midst of talking about benefits and the economy, suddenly said: “You can’t say anything about the immigrants…all these Eastern Europeans what are coming in – where are they flocking from?”
Now, just as Brown claims that what he said was not exactly what he meant, perhaps Duffy herself did not mean to sound as bigoted as she did when she spoke about “the immigrants” and their “flocking” in. But in the one minute handshake conversation on which Brown was forced to make his opinion, all he had to go on was that she claimed to be a Labour supporter, yet spouted the standard right-wing tabloid garbage about “all these Eastern Europeans”. If I had been having that exact conversation with Duffy, I would have come away thinking exactly the same thing too.
Furthermore, the media is also claiming that this off-mike/on-mike outburst was a public illustration of the exact kind of behind-the-scenes tyrant Brown has been portrayed as being over the past few months: an intolerant bully who blames everybody but himself.
I did not get that at all from listening to what was actually said. I just heard a tired and disappointed man who felt that the last few minutes had been a “disaster” say quite calmly that he thought it was ridiculous to have been put in that position and wanted to know who’s idea it had been. He did not say he wanted anyone’s head on a platter; he did not shout and curse and scream. He said that the meeting with Duffy had not gone well, he should have never been put in the position of having to deal with her, and when he was asked what she had said which had made him feel it had gone badly, he pointed out, quite fairly, that what she’d said had been “sort of bigoted”.
In any civilized country with a less-hysterical media, this private and reasonable conversation between a politician and his aides might have been mentioned as a point of humourous faux pas and then quickly brushed aside for more important things (for instance: the solid answer Brown had given Gillian Duffy when confronting her “sort of bigoted” views – that, though we have about a million EU nationals coming into the UK each year, we also have about a million UK nationals going into the EU so it all evens out). Instead though, we had this empty, sensationalist flogging of the issue – filming Duffy’s reaction to what was overheard by deliberately misquoting what Brown had actually said; showing her (understandable) offence when she was finally played the tape and the word “bigot” was heard in a manipulated context; swarming around her house as if one woman’s obvious offence at an individual, heat-of-the-moment, personal evaluation of her principles were some vital crux of the election campaign; and mentioning the gaffe as if it were headline news every five minutes and having various talking heads dissect the ramifications of events now largely caricatured out of all recognition to the actual facts of what happened.
I also think it is important to note the source of this irrelevant hysteria: Rupert Murdoch’s SKY News.
The mike which caught Brown’s statements was a rogue SKY News microphone that the Prime Minister had left on. Murdoch, of course, is an arch-conservative; the owner of the US’s rabid FOX News Network, and, here in the UK, owner of Cameron-backing The Sun, The Times and The News of the World. He is a highly partisan player in this election and his news organization is being used as a tool to help promote the Conservative cause. This could be seen during last week’s Prime Ministerial Debate, when SKY host, Adam Boulton, violated the agreed rules of the debate and attempted to derail the surge in Liberal Democrat momentum by asking Nick Clegg an erroneous question about party donations which had already been cleared up and dismissed earlier that day, and it could be seen yesterday, when a reasonable man’s reasonable comments about an angry woman talking ignorantly about immigration was used to smear his election campaign and discredit an entire political party.
That our politics have come to this is a sad indictment of the current British system, and one can only hope that a hung Parliament, and radical voter reform, will help change all that on the morning of May 7th.
In other news: I will be attending the BBC’s Question Time tonight in Birmingham. I don’t know if I’ll get to ask a question, but it sounds like it should be a good one: Ed Balls, Vince Cable and George Osborne were announced last time I checked, and we all get to watch the final Leaders Debate together beforehand – a political junky’s dream :-) I’ll let you know how it went, and, of course, you can watch it tonight at 10:45 on BBC One, following the news and the final debate.