In 2008-9 Prime Minister Gordon Brown bent over backwards to recruit Alan Sugar as his government’s ‘Business Czar’, with an eye to lining up the boisterous entrepreneur as Labour’s mayoral candidate. Back then reality TV stars going into politics didn’t have quite the same stigma as it does now and in the dying years of New Labour proximity to mass media appeal was all the more essential in the absence of Boxoffice Blair. Yes the Apprentice star was prone to the occasional off-colour remark – but it didn’t stop him being elevated to the upper chamber or having his BBC contract renewed. The Amstrad founder may have seen his technology thrown into the dumpster of pre-internet history but it didn’t stop him from deciding to get on the social media bandwagon in 2010.
It is a common phenomenon for our public dinosaurs. What may have been blithely excusable as off-the-cuff bluster in one epoch quickly became a PR nightmare with the onset of Twitter. The medium is often called a sewer- but let’s not condemn the drainage system. It is individuals like Alan Sugar who choose to hurl their excrement in public, and his latest aberration –a racist jibe aimed at the Senegalese football team- once again confirms that certain public figures lack civil character let alone deserve 280 of them. It should be common sense: if you are going to broadcast your views do it through a mediator. If you sit down with a journalist you bring your PR along. Communicating on social media should be no different. It’s all reputation management.
But hang on, don’t we live in a post-truth world where no one needs to apologise for anything? Like the screamingly inappropriate jacket worn by Melania Trump when visiting the infamous detention centres in Texas is there not a better slogan for 2018 than “I really don’t care do u?” Boris Johnson can pledge to lie down in front of bulldozers to stop Heathrow expansion yet he is given a free pass to be missing in action during next week’s vote which will surely be won by the pro-expansion government. Accountability has never been less relevant. Sugar could have just shrug it off. As the likes of Farage and Hopkins prove in this country –along with the basket case racists given platforms in an intellectual dark web stretching across Europe and America- provoking outrage can give you massive audiences. Might Sugar be better off leaving the straitjacket of the Beeb for more ideologically compatible –and potentially lucrative- broadcasters?
Yet the real lesson from the Sugar tweet is that the mainstream media has not risen to the challenge. There was widespread condemnation following the post yet the BBC was entirely on the back foot. The broadcaster was able to persuade Sugar to retract it but surely it should have been him begging them to keep his show? That there is seemingly no consequence for Sugar’s action is a failure of the BBC to police its talent. The only way real news will survive is broadcasters and newspapers acting as gatekeepers bound to standards of reporting that the free-for-all of the digital space is not. This week also saw the Paul Foot award for investigative reporting given to Amelia Gentleman for her exposure of the Windrush scandal. This is journalism at its best- well researched, hard-hitting, holding power to account. It is the standard we should expect from the gatekeepers. Cultivating racists? Not so much.