I found myself staying up late watching a profoundly depressing Question Time last night. What emerged, amid discussion of Boris’s cash-for-curtains deal with an anonymous private benefactor, was that the audience expects such behaviour from politicians and are much less scandalised by graft than one would think. People cheered as an audience member passionately defended Boris’s right to ‘get deals done’ using whatever means necessary, the applause of the virtual audience serving as an eerie digital death knell for the integrity of politicians.
Years ago, this kind of scandal might have brought a politician down. What has changed? Is it the meekness of the media, unable to hold politicians to account for what are clearly legal and civic duties to report where money comes from? Is it the strength of the social media, where blind supporters are able to generate enough noise to drown out that of the sheepish opposition? Or is it the weakness of that very opposition, like Keir Starmer in the John Lewis curtains section, falling into the trap of cheap and smarmy photo stunts?
What depressed me about the Question Time episode was that no one really tried to absolve Boris from any wrongdoing. Instead, the mentality of the crowd seemed to be that he did take dodgy money for his Downing flat, but, the thinking went, everyone does what difference does it make? Are politicians so untrustworthy that Boris seems to have some kind of buoyancy in a sea of sleaze?
No doubt, Boris is hunkered down and will weather this latest storm. This ties in to a point I have been making for some time now—nothing sticks. How could it be that in our hyper-mediatised, plugged-in, highly informed day and age people seem to be held to account for their malfeasances less than ever before? How short has our attention span become? Stories that yesterday felt cataclysmic today are barely a blip on the media’s radar. (Anyone remember that big to-do with the Princess manqué and the American broadcaster? Barely…) Perhaps it is because there is such a surfeit of information, nothing, no matter how incendiary, seems to be capable of gaining more than five minutes airtime in today’s attention economy, let alone bring down a politician who is seen as an avatar of the ‘freedom-loving’ British public. No doubt, Boris will ride this out, and what was, on Monday, a searing headline will, by the following weekend, be no more than an historical footnote…