Peter Kennard: From Maggie Regina to Blue Murder

After Thatcher, political artists need to look harder.

In early 1983, the former Labour MP Brian Walden interviewed Margaret Thatcher live from 10 Downing Street. The interview began at noon. The prime minister restated her belief that individuals had grown too dependent on the state, and that strikes were really nothing more than a selfish howl for a greater share. Walden quickly interjected, suggesting there was nothing particularly new about her ideas. “They have a resonance of our past,” he said. “You’ve really outlined an approval of what I would call Victorian values.”

This appeared, unexpectedly, to please the prime minister. “Exactly,” she half-whispered to Walden, whom she had already named publically as her favourite interviewer. “Very much so.”

Perhaps one of the best known images to come out of Margaret Thatcher’s assertion, and continued reassertion, of what she believed to be “Victorian values” was Peter Kennard’s Maggie Regina. The montage was originally designed for the front cover of the New Statesman in May 1983, but is now owned by the Tate collection and is exhibited regularly. The magazine assembled a pull-out supplement in which university historians wrote to explode Thatcherite conceptions of liberal purity, which they argued were mistakenly attributed to the Victorian era, just as the Victorians had attributed them to the Middle Ages in their own day.

“She wasn’t a PR construction like Cameron is,” says Kennard, now Senior Tutor in photography at the Royal College of Art. “She was direct – we had to attack her directly as well.” Kennard’s latest exhibition, “Blue Murder”, devised in collaboration with Cat Phillipps, aims to break through the thicker sheen of modern politicians, working with the “flat screen desert” of David Cameron’s face.

The work is purposefully modest - old newspapers, ink, charcoal – and designed so as to be easily transported and hung outdoors or in unconventional spaces. The message is not. A series of symbols explode through Cameron’s profile: cash, stock listings, riots and adverts for Rolex watches. Their main point of contention is the dismantling of the welfare state. “He’s a PR man,” says Phillipps. “His face is just a surface. We want to rip it apart and try to reveal some of the shit that they’re doing.”

Today a ten-day exhibition featuring Kennard’s Maggie Regina and a selection of artist’s responses to Margaret Thatcher over the years opened at London’s Gallery Different. “If people can see images which support what they feel then it helps them,” Kennard explains. Where the late prime minister provided plenty of material to work with, the coalition government is an altogether more opaque, more corporate and controlled operation. This is what lies at the heart of the new work: again, artists must puncture the veneer in order to expose the false assumptions upon which those in power act. “We need to look harder now,” he says.

Blue Murder opens at the Hang-Up Gallery, 56 Stoke Newington High Street, on 27 April.

Images courtesy of Peter Kennard/kennardphillipps.

"Maggie Regina" and "Blue Murder" contrasted. Copyright: kennardphillipps.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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