Ed Unplugged: The rise of private man

I’ve been thinking a lot about Richard Sennett lately and his book, The Fall of Public Man. Specifically, Sennett’s idea that we now live in an “intimate society” where social relationships of all kinds are only seen as real, believable, and authentic “the closer they approach the inner psychological concerns of each person”. In other words how private lives are increasingly played out in public.

Now, all politicians feel it necessary to reveal their private lives to us and Ed Milliband, leader of the opposition, is no different. This Saturday the Guardian’s Weekend section delivered a 4000 word interview with the Labour Leader. It was written by Andy Beckett, one of the finest feature writers around, and the content of the interview/profile is actually as serious as you would hope for in the Saturday supplement of a broadsheet newspaper. But it’s the way that the profile is packaged that will most interest any disciples of Sennett.

For a start there’s the cover (above right). Ed Unplugged. Unplugged from what exactly? It gives the idea that this is an authentic “accoustic” set, more personal and private and therefore more intimate account than you might otherwise expect. Note that is is Ed Unplugged and not Ed Milliband Unplugged or even Edward Milliband Unplugged. Imagine if Clement Attlee had been around today then it would it have been Clem Unplugged. But of course it wouldn’t, because that would be a nonsense.

To be fair, the piece is detailed and meaningful, although Beckett clearly feels an obligation to conduct a psychological investigation of his subject (which is exactly what Sennett was writing about). We learn that Mr Milliband, I have to call him that now, likes Curb Your Enthusiasm; we are reminded that he and brother David (not Dave, note) went to comprehensive school and while the profile discusses future policy, it eventually pivots on the axis of his personality. Beckett writes: “His leadership, in short, is an experiment. Are empathy and thoughtfulness, plus awkwardness, the ingredients of a realistic Downing Street contender? Or is it now an unbreakable rule of politics that only shallower but slicker politicians become prime minister?”

The dichotomy isn’t between policy and personality. It is between two different types of personality.

Which is why the Guardian is packaging Milliband in this way. It’s all about personality. In order to attract lots of people who don’t read the Guardian proper to read its Ed Milliband interview, the Weekend section knows that, in an intimate society, the only way to portray a serious interview by a talented profiler is to offer an intimate insight into the private life of your subject. This, in my opinion, signals something of a defeat for high-minded journalism and that, by extension, actually helps create the idea that only “shallower and slicker politicians can become prime minister”.

The idea, if you project it toward its logical conclusion, is that the only way serious journalism can package such an interview is to borrow something of the techniques of Hello!. This through-the-keyhole journalism, here a picture of the leader buttering some toast, there he is relaxing on the sofa with his child, is part of a machine that tries to sell a politician to the public though the use of an intimate lens. Although we all know that the images are as carefully constructed as any speech.

Of course, in writing so, I just show how out of time I am with the contemporary print media. They’re all doing it. The Guardian Weekend example is instructive, but its not even a severe case. All the media behaves in this way. Of course, In the Fall of Public Man, Sennett was writing about 1977, but the process that drives ever more personality into politics shows zero sign of abating.

Here is what he wrote in the Fall of Public Man:

“The electronic media play a crucial role in this deflection, by simultaneously overexposing the leader’s personal life and obscuring his work in office. The incivility which this modern charismatic figure embodies is that his followers are burdened with making sense of him as a person in order to understand what he is doing once in power … Leadership on these terms is a form of seduction. The structures of domination especially remain unchallenged when people are led into electing politician who sound angry, as if ready to change things; these politicians are, by the alchemy of personality, freed from translating angry impulses into actions.”