That battered old courtesan of a press

Tim Robbins asks why the modern media serve no better function than shameless courtesans to the powe

Full disclosure: I am an actor and I have no right to express my opinion in any forum other than a make-up chair. I have in the past, it is true, foolishly raised questions about my country's rush to war and I have since been humbled by the wisdom and vision of the neoconservatives who have realised such vibrant democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But still, because I am famous, and because it has been some time since I have embraced the adrenalin rush of self-importance, I have taken the invitation of another self-promoting dilettante to spew my observations at the reluctant and powerless reader. Here's the thing: I love journalism. It is in my opinion the most noble profession, other than being a firefighter or police officer or soldier or schoolteacher. Oh, or a doctor. Or a nurse. Or a paramedic. Oh, or a pilot who can land a plane in the Hudson River.

But while these professions save lives on a daily basis, the journalist is entrusted with an obligation just as essential: the responsibility of keeping a free society alive. By challenging authority, by demanding truth from those that would obfuscate, by exposing corruption in the halls of power, journalists act as the protectors of liberty, the guardians against autocracy. Some even take their responsibility to heroic levels by risking their life and livelihood in pursuit of truth and in defence of liberty.

We have seen recently how journalists' commitment to their profession can make the difference in a society that teeters between dictatorship and democracy. Telling the truth in a volatile time can empower the powerless and facilitate a fundamental shift in consciousness.

I want to believe that every journalist working these days holds these truths to be self-evident, but I'm not sure. Rare was the brave descendant of Woodward and Bernstein who challenged the pro-war narrative spun by the powerful after the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Instead, electronic media spokesmodels led the way. They didn't aspire to the investigative scoops of I F Stone or George Seldes, or the brave integrity of Edward R Murrow, or any of the other 20th-century journalists who viewed their job as a vital component of the democratic process. They simply had to apply make-up and read their lines. Those in print journalism who wouldn't reprint Pentagon press releases as front-page news were labelled unpatriotic, agenda-laden radicals and summarily intimidated into submission - if not expunged from the system. Those still left with a job got the message: if you want to think for yourself, don't expect to be paid for it. Good luck with the mortgage payments, Mr or Ms Truth-Teller.

(An email to my son's generation: the free press is an essential check to the abuse of the power of the government. Or in a tweet: when the assholes lie, the press has to call their shit.)

At this point, I must remind you once again that I am only an actor, and my opinion could very well be unreasonably idealistic. I don't live in the real world - I live in a celebrity bubble - so in practical matters I defer to better minds that understand how the world works and what the true purpose of journalism is.

As I said, I love journalists. Oh, for that All the President's Men (in Black) II script to arrive on my desk! A great blockbuster that upholds the freedom of the press - with action sequences!

But alas, the 1970s are dead in Hollywood and these are not good times for those who labour with their fingers at keyboards. Journalists with jobs these days are a dwindling number, and it must be with some embarrassment and fear that these workers arrive at the office these days. I want to believe that the fire still burns inside them, that they possess an undaunted and irreversible power. But can they get their story through?
Considering that no one in the upper echelons of the press lost their job for getting the facts so monumentally wrong in the lead-up to wars that resulted in such a cost in lives and a depletion of the American treasury, we shouldn't be surprised at the poor quality of reporting on the rise of the "Tea Party", or the outbreak of revolutions in the Middle East, or the Julian Assange affair. (Here is where the actor gets unfortunately belligerent in remembrance of the 18th-century saloons that forged our democracy.)

Like an old battered courtesan with a romantic memory of her virtue, those left within the media elite with a shred of dignity must have had a moment of relief when Barack Obama was elected. Change was the order of the day. Gone were the days of embarrassing complicity with the government, of sitting on your conscience and looking the other way while your pimp lied to you and looted your treasure. Here was a moment to reclaim yourself, your virtue.

Rock star in the spotlight

But in the compromised trollop, craven nature triumphed over her illusory heart of gold. It has been pretty obvious for the past two years to anyone not in a coma that the Tea Party movement was a well-funded, right-wing political insurgency. Yet the mistress reported her pimp's story of a legitimate "grass-roots movement". The spokesmodels and print journalist neocons repeated the legitimacy of this movement ad nauseam for two years until the anaesthetised American public once again bought the product being sold them. They voted against their best interests - believing they were embracing Tom Paine whilst being raped by King George.

It's no wonder that these severely compromised gossips/publicists reacted so vehemently to WikiLeaks's Assange. Here was someone outside the cathouse with a rock star's spotlight on him, scooping them all, reminding them of what a journalist should be doing for a living, and in doing so shining a light on their subser­vience to their corporate paymasters.

(Conspiracy alert: It is ridiculous to assert that there is "control" over information in a "free" society. Those multinationals that have news divisions maintain them as a service to the democracy. They are "free" to report anything they like. Also, full disclosure II: anything positive I say about Assange has nothing to do with the truth and everything to do with my own craven, whorish nature. I've been told I look like him and as an actor I will do anything and say anything to star in that movie.)

That said: a man that presents truth among liars does not seem to fare well. Any admission by "journalists" that Assange might have relevant information necessary to a democracy's survival might suggest that they have been sleeping on the job, and that they serve no function other than courtesan to the powerful.

To add embarrassment to humiliation, those same courtesans had to watch while Assange's exercise in press freedom, which they had attempted to discredit, helped to lead to an explosion of protests in the Middle East calling for democratic reform. The embarrassed courtesans duly hemmed and hawed, spewing disinformation about Muslim Brotherhoods and terrorist connections to the voices calling out to the world from Cairo in Tahrir Square.

But as these kept ladies tried to misinform the world, the will of the Egyptian people won the day. Suddenly the Egyptian voice spoke more truth through Twitter than through our cathouses of information - and a paradigm shifted. While a fever of democracy spread, they stumbled over themselves trying to catch up, like an embarrassed and shamed collaborator trying to explain that it was his complicity to dictatorship which led to democracy.

Meanwhile, the US attorney general, Eric Holder, doing his best impression of his Bush-era predecessor John Ashcroft, spoke of the terrorist crimes of Assange. In an irony that could only be truly appreciated by the ghosts of the original National Lampoon editor Doug Kenney and writer Michael O'Donoghue, the courtesan reporters and spokesmodels delighted in portraying Assange as an erratic and unhinged individual.

(And here is where the actor goes too far and remembers his love of Bertolt Brecht and his punk-rock roots . . .) And so the wanton wench who has been sharing her bed with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney et al, who got knocked up with and gave birth to their bastard war, now stands in judgement of legitimate democratic movements and demonises one of the last truth-tellers as a rapist, without waiting for the due process of a trial.

Then, as is wont to happen in a society that worships distraction when thoughts of revolution abroad and press freedom at home start to disturb our sense of equilibrium, along comes an actor in meltdown and we are blissfully brought into the pornography again.

Our airwaves have been liberated by Charlie Sheen - say hallelujah! We blissfully stare at the car wreck of the unstable celebrity and are absolved of our responsibility to think about the world, or our involvement with it.

Here's an interesting angle: compare the hours of press coverage of Sheen ranting about his situation with the reportage of any of his father Martin's principled protests in the past 30 years. It's not even close, folks.

A reasoned, intelligent, religious activist and actor is virtually ignored, while his unhinged and chemically imbalanced son is given endless hours of press coverage and the rope with which to hang himself. We want our actors to be innocuous representations of our foolish, self-destructive inclinations, not our moral centres or reminders of our own humanity. For that, we look to our politicians and our pundits.

Doomsday ignoramus

And now, today, we are faced with a world crisis. As a nuclear power plant threatens to melt down in Japan and the world worries about radiation spreading through the atmosphere, we have not a thought for the words of the father Sheen or Bruce Springsteen, or Sting, or Jackson Browne, and all those "self-important celebrities" who called for attention to the dangers of nuclear power in the 1980s.

Oh yes, they were naive dupes of left-wing doomsday ignoramuses. They did not understand the complex science that guaranteed the safety of nuclear power plants; they were alarmists, extremists, fools. The public listened instead to the kings, the reasoning individuals and well-paid scientists who assured us that there was absolute safety and security in the man-made systems that protected us. These pragmatists understood the benefits of the nuclear industry and belittled the misinformed and ignorant musicians and artists of the world.

And as the crisis unfolded in Japan, these promoters and advertisers of the guilt-free nuclear dream sat in their studies in Georgetown undisturbed by the media. No one asked them to express any defence of their previous beliefs of safe nuclear energy, which they have spread like a virus since the 1960s.

As a moronic, narcissistic actor, I am reluctant to call on my knowledge of Shakespeare to blame the responsible king and spare the truth-telling fool. I realise that my opinions are seriously misguided, and anyway, isn't it the artists that have created the problem? Their free-natured approach to expressing the human condition has led to the destruction of our moral and economic stability, if not the tsunami itself. Artists who embrace activism serve a function in society that is just as embarrassing as those intrepid journalists who seek to illuminate the truth in these volatile times.

As long as we limit the voice and influence of these fools, our kings can rant naked in the storm and be considered reasoned, articulate leaders. And that's a rewrite that will please. It may not be a good play - but business can proceed as usual. Spare us the words of those who will not profit from ignorance or complicity. Give us Lear without guilt. Give us our uncomplicated drama, for the good of all of those who seek a simplified view of the world.

And for God's sake, let's keep our actors embarrassed and humiliated.

Tim Robbins is an Oscar-winning actor, a musician and artistic director of the Actors' Gang, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary.

This article first appeared in the 11 April 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Jemima Khan guest edit

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496