Reviewed: The Politician’s Husband on BBC2

Blond ambition.

The Politician’s Husband
BBC2

Wouldn’t it be great if TV baddies sometimes went into restaurants and ordered, say, a little bowl of miso with some steamed greens on the side? Alas, they never do. In The Politician’s Husband (25 April, 9pm), Paula Milne’s almost-reprise of her 1995 series, The Politician’s Wife, there is a baddie with the preposterous name of Bruce Babbish. Mr Babbish is a politician of uncertain hue – one’s party seems not to matter in this kind of series, a fact I find somewhat disorientating – and rather posh and bland to boot. But we know he is a baddie because at lunch he orders calves’ liver, rare, with a bottle of something expensive and red.

Crikey it’s weird, this series – and if we’re going to count the ways, we might as well start with David Tennant’s hair, which has been dyed blond so very inexpertly, I wondered if someone at the BBC, working under the pressure of budget cuts, had simply set about it with the Sun-In. Talk about Eighties: the poor sod looks like David Van Day from Dollar, which really doesn’t help when you’re pretending to be Aiden Hoynes, a Machiavellian former secretary of state for business with designs on No 10.

On the plus side, at least his wife, Freya Gardner (played by Emily Watson), the new secretary of state for work and pensions, looks nothing at all like Thereza Bazar (also late of the pop duo Dollar) – though it must be said that some of her moves in the bedroom could have come straight out of one of the band’s videos. Crikey, again. Is this how Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper carry on of an evening? No, don’t answer that. It was a rhetorical question.

But I’m rushing ahead of myself. What is The Politician’s Husband about? Apparently it’s about the “cesspit” of British politics (copyright: Hoynes’ father, a retired lecturer at the LSE) – a stinky world where you can’t trust anyone, not even your own wife. The set-up goes like this. Hoynes resigned from the cabinet, Hezza-style, hoping that this would trigger a leadership election that he would then win. However, his best friend and fellow cabinet member, Babbish – played with all the aplomb of a teak sideboard by Ed Stoppard – refused to back him in front of the cameras, with the result that, isolated and outcast, he has had to fall back on plan B: his wife. Having encouraged Freya to accept her own seat in cabinet, he intends using her as a spy and a weapon.

The only trouble is that the worm appears to be turning. Freya is clearly rather enjoying her taste of power. On Newsnight, she couldn’t even bring herself to tell Kirsty that she agreed with her husband’s dissident views on immigration. Poor Aiden. Where will this disloyalty end? He must be worried. Any minute now, she’s going to ditch their rampant sex life and cuddle up with her red box instead. Either that, or she’ll end up boffing Babbish, his nemesis.

Watson is a decent actor, but she’s not my – or anyone’s – idea of an MP, especially not a Tory one (the “dissident” immigration thing – in his resignation speech, Aiden claimed to be in favour of more of it – makes me think they must all be Tories after all). Those googly eyes, that tremulous voice; they just don’t work in this context. You can’t feel her ambition. Called to a meeting at Downing Street, she wandered into the cabinet room and, in a reverie of aspiration so intense I half expected Derren Brown to appear from behind the nearest baize door, lowered herself slowly into the PM’s seat. Instead of looking hungry, though, she merely looked like she had taken too much Valium.

Of course, this isn’t only Watson’s fault. What possessed Milne to come up with such an utterly lame scene? A good bit of writing would have had Freya greedily flicking her eyes in the direction of the cabinet table over her powder compact, not breaking her cover entirely. Because if she’s this obvious at the very epicentre of power – the chief whip, aka Roger Allam, might have strolled in at any moment – what chance does she have at home, where Aiden prowls anxiously in his dressing gown? (Another odd overstatement; he’s still an MP, after all.)

Not much, I’d say – though you can perhaps forgive her for having a false sense of security so far as her husband goes. Anyone would, given that hair.

David Tennant in The Politician's Husband. Photograph: BBC

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 29 April 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What makes us human?

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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