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19 September 2019

“I am not a real person”: why the media’s search for authenticity is screwing everything up

The argument that Omar Salem could be dismissed because he was a Labour activist is familiar – and strange.

By Jonn Elledge

I am not a real person. I live in London, for one thing. I am outspoken about my views on the Conservative Party. And even though I grew up in the sort of Essex town that film crews head to when they want to meet some real people without bothering to leave the M25, I have the sort of job which disqualifies me from that particular adjective. I don’t count.

Though it pains me to tell you, you are probably not a real person either. You read the New Statesman, so there’s an above average chance you’re some kind of activist or campaigner. You’re just a little bit too political, a little bit too engaged.

Someone else who received the distressing news that he’s not a real person this week is Omar Salem, who was filmed in a hospital berating Boris Johnson about the care his baby daughter is receiving in an age of austerity. Everyone got very excited about this for a few minutes, until it emerged that Salem was also a Labour activist. At this point everyone breathed a sigh of relief: they could safely ignore his views and get excited about something else instead. It was a similar chain of events to those experienced by Boris Johnson’s Remain-supporting neighbours a few weeks ago.

The logic here – “He campaigns for Labour, ergo his views on government policy can be dismissed” – is so familiar, so seemingly inexorable, that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact it’s actually rather strange. Perhaps the chain of causality runs the other way, and it was Tory policies that made him a Labour activist in the first place. And of course a person with strong views on the NHS is likely to favour Labour. Why were his views a surprise?

Yet somehow, the fact that Salem is a Labour activist is enough to remove him from that rarefied realm of the real. It makes him too partisan, as if it’s only the views of people who previously didn’t have any which count, as if heckling a politician isn’t an inherently opinionated act. We want to know how real people really feel – but if they feel so strongly that they’ve actually acted on those feelings, they’re no longer real at all. (A side note: the pretence that anyone who wasn’t an activist would ever consent to waste their evening at a recording of Question Time is also really weird.)

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We’ve been seeing variants of this division between “real” people and the rest for a while now. In 2008, John McCain and Sarah Palin spent a lot of time telling their voters in the rural parts of one swing state that they were the “real” Virginia, as opposed, one assumes, to all those latte drinkers in the Washington suburbs. Since the Republican pair went on to lose Virginia by six points, that suggests there were rather fewer real Virginians than fake ones.

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In this, McCain and Palin were just ahead of their time. Now everywhere you look there are references to real people – the ones who voted for Trump over Clinton, or Leave over Remain. In 2017, there were search parties sent out for the real people of France, too, the ones who were about to elect Marine Le Pen as president, followed by almost audible sighs of disappointment when they failed to do any such thing. Perhaps France just isn’t a real place.

Robert Kilroy-Silk recently claimed to my colleague Patrick Maguire to have invented the concept of real people. (The quote sadly didn’t make the write up.) “I got ridiculed for it,” Kilroy-Silk said. “I found it very difficult to say: ‘The ordinary people on my show’. So I said real people.”

But that ridicule didn’t come from nowhere. The idea some people are more real than others is silly: a voter is a voter, regardless of their background. Worse, it implies that some people – older, whiter, less educated, more angry – have more right to speak than others. By defining what “real” is, even in a well-meaning attempt to keep debate unbiased, we’re ironically skewing the debate, by privileging some voices and excluding others.

So, let’s not put up with this anymore. Down with real people. The votes of you and I and Omar Salem count just as much as those of anybody else. Our views are just as important.

Except for Liberal Democrats, of course. Those guys are really weird.