Absolute power, absolute disgrace: PR and politics

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Bell Pottinger.

In Absolute Power (2000-2006) Stephen Fry and John Bird play the heads of Prentiss McCabe, a London-based public relations agency which handles the spin for troubled celebrities and disgraced politicians. They have no morals, or scruples. There is no depth they will not plumb, no depraved lie they will not spin, no bald-faced untruth they will not stand by in service of making or breaking someone’s public image and reputation. The series plays for laughs, but its comedy is macabre, and viewers' laughter may be a defence mechanism against fully confronting the truth it reveals of the society it satirises.

In one episode they have to salvage the reputation of a Member of Parliament caught soliciting sex on Hampstead Heath, and so invent an elaborate explanation about ‘urban fox hunting’ which makes for a most spectacularly comic display on John Bird’s part. In another episode rival teams in Prentiss McCabe compete to bolster the chances of two clerics to head the Church of England. The winning team focuses on ‘sexing up’ the image of their candidate, and, using only innuendo and rumour, scuppers the chances of the opposition team’s candidate so that everyone believes him to be a homosexual rather than a celibate.

However, their more appalling acts on behalf of clients have wider consequences for the nation, and the firm. In one contract they convince the European football authorities that a dud Welsh player is really English, thus costing England a crucial match. In another, they invent a disease to explain away a celebrity caught on camera beating his pregnant partner with flat-pack furniture. The latter project backfires badly, as their dishonesty is exposed. 

Of course, only money and power drive the work of Prentiss McCabe. They will stop at nothing to convince the public that a lie is true, or that the mundane truth is a lie. They and their minions will use the media, politicians, other people’s families, children, and innocent bystanders to have their version of the world serve their clients’ reputations, and their own pockets.

Now, two decades after those first episodes of Absolute Power, we in South Africa, in the wake of the apology from Bell Pottinger, have found out just how powerful a public relations agency can be. Britons, of course, have known the baleful consequences of PR in politics for a while. In some senses, formal politics in the United States is almost nothing but PR. And traditionally, we have tolerated the presence of image makers and jingle composes, make-up artists and copy-writers, speech therapists and hair-stylists, in the making of politicians, as if such chicanery does not also end up making politics itself.

No apology will undo the damage, of course. Lines were crossed, and people ought to be held accountable. Some of those people are in London, people who did their work for money. But some of those people are here, among us, in South Africa. They cooperated, accepted their briefs, and like good soldiers, have and continue to act out the scripts and performances carefully choreographed for them. The rest of us were asked to allow ourselves to be duped, and when we questioned the vulgar illogic and raised the risk to the body politic, had our loyalty to country and progressive politics questioned, and the questioning continues. Some postures, it seems, once paid for, are hard to break out of.

In a country like South Africa, with its plethora of political and social troubles, the consequences of blighting politics with public relations are horrific. Given the madness and deprivation we inherited from the past, the reduction of politics to PR is obscene. The pollution we suffer in the body politic when politics is fixed as a set of palatable and saleable images, two-dimensional products which can be marketed to a populace by shifts in accent, by the repetition of empty phrases, by postures and poses, rather than by actual hard work, threatens to kill off freedom and democracy in favour of fascism and autocracy.

When rhetoric displaces substance, when the lie smothers the truth, when the images mask the material realities, we are all asked to live a lie. To the beat of nationalism’s drums we are asked to march in service of a racialised project too disgusting to even countenance. In the service of power, anything can and everything has been said about people considered enemies, with no substantiation, no evidence, just the accusation, and the rumour mongers, with palatable and sticky acronyms and abbreviations, with key words endlessly repeated until the alternative facts they represent drown out anything that vaguely resembles material reality.

Of course, in Prentiss McCabe there was a line the partners would not cross. In character, Fry and Bird are invited to a country house for the launch of a new political party which wants to hire them. After a period of hobnobbing with upper class fox hunters, they are shown into a room to look at water colours, all signed A.H. With horror the partners realise that their potential clients are neo-Nazis, the paintings Adolf Hitler's. ‘You cannot spin the Holocaust,’ Bird’s McCabe tells Fry’s Prentiss. Prentiss, after a moment’s hesitation in which he briefly entertains how he could do the necessary, has to agree, and the partners flee back to the muck of London's PR industry. Some things, they aver, are not worth the money; their clients have reputations, but so do they.

It seems that when it came to South Africa and its 55 million people’s fortunes and destiny, that PR firm in the United Kingdom saw no such quandary, and even their apology feels like additional spin. Ask not, South Africa, for whom the Bell Pottinger tolls, the baleful consequences of their grab for money ought to tell us it tolled for us, and our recently gained freedom to work out our political future collectively, transparently, and justly. Absolute power ought to rest with us, the people, not with our elected politicians, or worse, the people hired by corporate interests to advise them. Not now, not here, not ever.