This week’s question: Was Gordon Brown right to reveal his emotions on television?

Our debaters are Phillip Hodson, fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy and Nick Cohen, writer and Observer columnist

Phillip Hodson and Nick Cohen

Published in The Observer, Sunday 21 February 2010

Last Sunday both Gordon Brown and David Cameron bared their souls in intimate television interviews about their private lives; Brown in an exchange with Piers Morgan on ITV, and Cameron on Scottish TV. Both politicians revealed more emotion than they ever have before – but is this what the electorate needs in the run-up to an election?

Nick Cohen To be clear from the start, I do not object to Gordon Brown and David Cameron blabbing about the misfortunes of their lives. They are democratic politicians and must accept our counterfeit culture as the sea they have to fish in. I object to the voters. Or, rather, that ululating mob of psycho-burblers, Mumsnet minnies and talk-show bullies who insist that they have the right to condemn others as “emotional illiterates” unless they tell strangers about their sufferings. What truths do you think viewers grasped when they watched Piers Morgan interview Gordon Brown? All they could realistically learn is that when put under pressure by a voyeuristic media and a gawping public, a reluctant Prime Minister was willing to go on air and admit that the death of his child upset him.

Phillip Hodson What the public learned from this interview is that Brown can do charm and humour while displaying a moderate degree of personal insight. (No, I never thought I’d write such words either.) And the public strongly needed to know this before deciding whether to vote for his policies, because they’ve hitherto been worried about his personality. Many don’t trust him. And while Gordon may remain an academic economist, filled with professional resentments, this interview did finally allow the viewer to connect with him as recognisably human. He used deft, emotionally literate skill to repel the intrusion of his tabloid interrogator. As a result, I found myself liking him a great deal more than I had before, and this could influence my own vote.

Nick Cohen You unintentionally get to the root of my concern when you describe Piers Morgan as an “interrogator.” He was no such thing. The Easter bunny might have asked the Prime Minister harder questions.

Phillip Hodson I meant in connection with Morgan’s relentless requirement to know how much sex Gordon had before marriage, and whether he physically consummated his engagement on a lonely beach in Fife. I, too, noted with alarm that Piers Morgan was very politically congenial with his guest, and that their dialogue came to resemble a bit of a love-in…

Nick Cohen ITV bent over backwards to keep their relations cordial. It lined up the Prime Minister’s family and colleagues to say what a great guy he was. Meanwhile Alastair Campbell, one of the best PR men in the business, coached him beforehand, as did, I am sure, Sarah Brown, who is a formidable PR woman in her own right. You saw a programme in which British television came close to reproducing the propaganda of the state broadcasters of dictatorships; a programme the opposition parties ought to refer to the TV regulators. If it had manipulated facts, I am sure that you as an intelligent man would have noticed the trickery and protested. But because it manipulated your emotions you allowed yourself to be seduced.

Phillip Hodson You can’t butter me up by saying I’m intelligent! My central contention is that until this interview a hardened, not-easily-seduced, seen-it-all-before therapist had no real inkling that Gordon Brown could actually beguile. Many of his difficulties as a politician in the television age stem from his lack of acting and broadcasting ability. Though it may not be enough to win him the election this interview did transform Brown from cartoon figure to full(er) portrait. The question before us is whether the party leaders were right to bare their souls on television. I think it’s good for the electorate that they’ve tried.

Nick Cohen You cannot get to the top of any organisation without some level of charm, and I wouldn’t deny that in the right circumstances Brown can be charming…

Phillip Hodson He can also be warm, witty, human, sensitive, a loving husband and a doting dad – until last week, I had little idea he possessed these redeeming qualities.

Nick Cohen …but sensible personal characteristics to look for in a politician are what makes him or her angry. If it is injustice or the waste of public money, then they will do well; if it is slights to personal dignity or grown-up arguments conducted without fear or favour, then best avoid them. To allow politicians to appeal to stock emotions with conditioned responses is infantile.

Phillip Hodson But we cannot discern the essential personality traits of our politicians simply by seeing them debate the issues in formal political contexts. In the über-democratic age of television and internet publicity, the public requires their emotional discourse and they are the masters. It is no longer good enough for politicians to remain reticent and unexposed – precisely because the technology of exposure is now so effectively ubiquitous.

Nick Cohen An über-democratic age? Haven’t you noticed what is happening around you? If you look at who bothers to vote now, you will see that the electorate comes overwhelmingly from the middle class. Most of the working class has given up. Your politics of emotion have led to fewer real humans voting. It would be both foolish and stupid if we ignored the dangers of substituting “emotional discourse” for political discourse. For millions of our fellow citizens, the soft lies of emotional politics are luxuries they cannot afford.

Phillip Hodson It may be uncomfortable for those of us raised to believe in the stiff upper lip (and I accept that nothing is really gained by being emotionally incontinent) but the emotional self-deconstruction of politicians is in the interests of the electorate. It presents the voter with a much broader range of evidence upon which to judge how strongly our would-be leaders are internally true and authentic. Though David Cameron had his moment on Scottish television, he has not gone the extra mile as Gordon did – yet. I will watch with interest if he does.

Phillip Hodson’s latest book is How ‘Perfect’ is your Partner? (Carroll and Brown);

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