ALASTAIR CAMPBELL describes how he fell for a fake news story about Love Island… but warns the joke is on all of us.
Picture: ITV – Credit: ITV
This is embarrassing… for me.
I mean, I am meant to be the media guy, the one who can see through the spin, see round the corners, work out what is actually going on.
Indeed, companies and conferences pay me good money to answer the question ‘what the hell is happening in the world and how the hell do we make sense of it?’ (You may direct inquiries straight to my website… let’s cut out the middle-man!)
It was at one such event last week that I told my embarrassing story and realised from the laughter how much people enjoy seeing someone they expected to be quite bright admit that he was, well, not as smart as he or they might think.
During the post-speech Q and A I was asked about ‘fake news’, and what individuals could do to insulate themselves against this phenomenon of the post-truth age.
As part of the answer, out popped my embarrassing story. It’s about Love Island. Call me old-fashioned, call me curmudgeonly and out of tune with the times but I have always pretty much hated so-called reality television and never taken the trouble to watch much of it to find out whether my views are justified. So I confess I have never seen a single second of Love Island other than when catching an advert. But I am aware of its current place in our culture. That’s why last year, on meeting ‘Hayley off Love Island’ when she, Nigel Farage and I were the improbable line-up on the BBC’s Daily Politics, I got her to say she supported the People’s Vote campaign, even if I had a modest suspicion she had literally no idea what it was.
This year my Love Island moment came courtesy of a tweet about someone called Sherif, which informed me that he had been kicked off for saying he voted Liberal Democrat in the European elections. For obvious reasons this resonated with me, as I had also been ejected, not from Love Island but from the Labour Party, for having done exactly the same thing.
I thought to myself, I wonder whether, now that Sherif has time on his hands, we might be able to get him along to one of the People’s Vote events being planned across the summer. So I put out feelers to media contacts who might be able to get me Sherif’s number.
I’m not overly swayed by the whole celeb-ology of modern politics but I felt his appearance could have a certain appeal to a certain demographic, and who knows, he might just be a lot more than a pretty face with a beefcake body.
The following morning I was on the Jeremy Vine show on Channel 5.
They were doing a section on my expulsion from Labour, complete with a phone-in during which, I was happy to learn, almost all of the callers were on my side and two wanted me to be Labour leader and prime minister. Blush, blush. Most of my life, I have to say I have felt these positions to be beyond me. Right now, seeing what we have in both jobs… but enough of that… back to the embarrassing story.
In the review of the newspapers, the story about Sherif came up. Now had it not been for the tweet I saw, and retweeted, I would not have had a clue what they were talking about. But I was able to make what I imagined to be an important contribution to the debate.
“I don’t imagine you watch Love Island,” said Jeremy. “No,” I said. “But I know about this. He got kicked off because he said he voted Lib Dem and one of the rules of Love Island is that you’re not allowed to talk about politics.”
Jeremy, a genuinely nice man, looked at me with concern. So did Storm Huntley, his fellow presenter (who by the way should have her own show, she is terrific.) I looked at my fellow panellists, and at the small live audience, and they too looked at me as though I had said something really weird, or farted very loudly.
I decided to retreat from the subject until we moved on to the next thing, deducing from the other contributors that sex, not politics, may have been behind his expulsion.
Fast forward a few days and I am at a summer staff party for Portland, the PR company to which I give what is grandly called ‘strategic counsel’. I am hanging out with some of the younger ones and so, inevitably, Love Island comes up.
“I don’t imagine you watch Love Island, do you?” one of them asks, in an exact echo of Jeremy Vine. Am I that obvious in my attitudes?
“No,” I reply. “But as it happens I am trying to track down one of the contestants. Sherif. The one who got kicked out for voting Liberal Democrat.”
At which point a young man by the name of Dominic Hauschild, someone I know well, have worked with, speak to most weeks, splutters a mouthful of whatever it was he had just put to his lips, and then collapses in what can only be called a fit of hysteria.
When finally he pulls himself together sufficient to complete a sentence, that sentence is this: “I can’t believe you thought that was true… I made it up as a joke… I thought it was obvious.” Worse, his own anger at my own expulsion from Labour was part of the thinking behind the joke!
Not only did I believe it, I shared my beliefs live on national television. I badgered and bothered others to help me find a man who, had I done so, would have presumably imagined I was some kind of lunatic when I called, introduced myself, and asked him to come and speak at a rally for a final say referendum.
So, in short, I fell for a piece of ‘fake news’. What to do? I don’t know. I am lost. I am bewildered. I cannot make sense of the world.
Donald Trump is US president, he thinks there were airports at the time of the fight for American independence, and thinks any ambassador who dares to tell even a mild version of the truth about him must be declared persona non grata.
Boris Johnson is about to become prime minister having built a career as a journalist by lying, then won the most important campaign in modern UK politics by doing exactly the same thing, and now winning another one by putting jokes and bluster ahead of detail and scrutiny.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party has poll ratings closer to single figures than to the share of the vote needed to win an election. And we are asked to believe this is only happening because of dark conspiracies and that when an election comes, the public will see the error of their ways in thinking he might not be up to the job of prime minister, and the party may not have handled anti-Semitism, Brexit, or much else, as well as might be expected of a government in waiting. And MPs of both sides may be about to facilitate Brexit, which they know will damage the lives of their constituents but, because many of their constituents want to believe it won’t, they have to pretend that it is all going to be fine.
It doesn’t really matter much why Sherif got kicked off Love Island*. But it matters a lot that our own country, and the most important and powerful democracy in the world, are governed by people with the exact same approach to truth as those of a practical joker. At least Dominic knew he was making it up, and that ultimately what he did was harmless.
The populists now dominant in our politics appear often neither to know nor care whether what they say is true, and the more confused we are, the happier they seem to be. Their harm to politics, and to the people they are supposed to be serving, is incalculable and growing. The longer it takes for this populist virus to be halted, the greater the damage to us all.
* For those who don’t watch the show, but are now interested in the real reason Sherif was kicked off Love Island, tabloid reports suggest he was removed for accidentally kicking a woman in the groin, then joking about it using bad language, including the c-word.