Monday, 15 February 2010

Gordon Brown - unspun by television

I'm being told, unofficially, that 4.2 million people tuned in to see Gordon Brown being interviewed by Piers Morgan on ITV last night. That's 24% of the audience share and a respectable figure for a Sunday night.

For the sake of context there were 6m viewers for the Antiques Road Show earlier in the evening and that Skating on Ice stuff got 7.4m.

The question being chewed over this morning at a near empty Westminster is did Gordon Brown do himself any favours on television? There wasn't a dry eye in the house when he spoke about losing his daughter and, with his wife Sarah giving visible support, viewers must have felt some empathy for him.

The professional cynics accused him this morning of parading his dead child to garner a few votes but these are the hired girns, the paid attack dogs of the Tory press. Over at Radio 5, the "bloke radio" phone-in format that Downing Street constantly monitors to see how politics plays in the real world, sympathy outweighed cynicism on the speed dial.

But I felt, as I have for some time, that some people have stopped listening to Brown regardless of what he is saying. I was watching him close up a few months ago in committee, giving evidence to the Speaker's conference on parliamentary representation. He spoke first, had more to say, and made a better case but many of the cross-party MPs he was invited to talk to seemed to be doodling in their notebooks.

Next into the same seat was David Cameron, whose party's record on gender and minority representation is woeful. But Dave managed to use his charm, his new boy wattage, to make himself sound interesting and sincere in his desire to do better. The contrast, in the persuasiveness of the message, and in the body language of the listeners, was marked. They paid attention these MPs and they are the most cynical audience on the block.

Brown last night described himself as someone whose life has been a series of setbacks - sporting accident, thwarted leadership, family tragedy - from which he has always fallen forward, learning all the time. In one of the clips, when his family spoke about how he lost his eye, how that was a turning point for the young man, crystallised a few thoughts for me about why people don't connect to Brown.

Until the cruel attack on the Prime Minister over his clumsily scripted letters of condolence to the families of fallen soldiers, few people outside politics realised that Gordon Brown is blind in one eye. Those inside the Whitehall beltway rarely comment on it but it is something we've all aware of even though we might not realise.

Being deaf on one ear I'm always carefully positioning myself around people, shuffling around the room, re-arranging chairs, so that I can listen in properly. On stage I see the partially sighted Prime Minister doing much the same thing, checking himself and others spatially, constantly moving his head left and right, working hard to make sure he misses none of the visual cues most of us pick up without noticing.

Sitting in the stalls at a Downing Street press conferences, watching Brown talk with a foreign leader say, all that behaviour seems perfectly natural and understandable. Watch the same press conference again on television, with the Prime Minister's small movements framed and exaggerated by the confines of a camera and it has a totally different effect.

On television compensating for the eye loss creates a barely perceptible impression of someone who is not entirely comfortable in the situation he is. His posture makes the viewer feel uncomfortable themselves and it breaks that crucial thread of connection all television performers strive for with their audience.

It's not something anyone can do anything about, least of all Mr Brown, and not anything he should apologise for. He can only carry on being the least televisual politician of the age.

How this play out in the election television debates we're promised will be intriguing. Labour strategists are convinced that they can unspin Cameron on television, that his shallowness and the lack of experience will be exposed by the gravitas and driller killer knowledge of the Prime Minister.

Unfortunately for Brown people do more than just listen to television, they take all kinds of messages from the image as well as the words. Cameron has the light touch the medium requires, Brown has an intensity suited for radio.

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