The first thing to say is that if you’re a comedian looking for a stage name, I’m not entirely sure that choosing one that makes you sound like a cross between a failed kids’ entertainer and a sarcastic Alexei Sayle creation (who could forget Bobby Chariot?) is going to lead to a series of appearances on Have I Got News For You. So from here on I’ll use his real name.
Why has the literal clown Jonathan May-Bowles moved me to write the type of knee-jerk opinion piece that I’m not particularly keen on? I think it’s because I have such a conflict of opinions as to his action in attacking said billionaire with a custard pie.
The last high-profile custard pie recipient I can remember was Jeremy Clarkson, a man who has managed the astonishing feat of being pet controversialist for both News International and the BBC for almost a decade. Clarkson is exactly the type of person who deserves a custard pie, knows he deserves a custard pie, and indeed treats custard pie attack as an occupational hazard of poking sticks at large sections of society.
And that’s fine, because what Clarkson does is low-level rabble-rousing. He plays to his gallery, gets the reaction he wants, and everyone goes home relatively happy. That’s one reason I wholeheartedly approve of custard pies.
Another reason is that it is very British. There is a long tradition of slapstick in our society, from Charlie Chaplin through Norman Wisdom, Frank Spencer, Lee Evans and, erm, the Chuckle Brothers. Protest by slapstick is an entirely acceptable, and often effective, way of puncturing the pomposity of those who perceive themselves to be at the top of society.
Many reactions immediately after the event were along the lines of “he could have had anything”. Well, allowing for the scanners that are presumably part of the Portcullis House security operation, I suppose he could…but again, this is London, not Washington DC, and it’s much more likely to be shaving foam than razor blades or anything more explosive. It’s sort of how we do things.
The issue at stake today, though, was far too important for water pistols and flashing red noses. The Murdoch family are accused of presiding over an empire of lying, corruption and criminality which extended not just to a single now-defunct tabloid newspaper, but also throughout the supposed law enforcers in the Metropolitan Police, and the political “masters” in Downing Street, where Prime Minister David Cameron was apparently deliberately kept in the dark as far as possible, while still employing one of the accused editors and being a neighbour and close friend of another. (I hope, by the way, that not many readers attach the same interpretation to the linked e-mail exchange that Tim Montgomerie has suggested. I simply can’t understand people who just write to spin like that.)
Some of us have been grumbling about the entrenched influence of Murdoch for years. Not only do his newspapers attempt to set the national tone at “lowest common denominator”, not only do they claim to influence society to the point of winning elections, but his television company has for the last two decades run football as a private plaything, to the detriment of the game in general and certainly of its supporters, who must tolerate Monday night trips the length of the country at the whim of the schedulers, and are force-fed the view that the national sport is essentially about four or five clubs in Manchester, London and, if they’re a bit pushed, Liverpool.
So the recent revelations, prompted by the dogged, almost solitary work of Guardian journalist Nick Davies, gave some hope that this corrosive force could start to be rolled back. Building all year from the resignation of Andy Coulson from his post of Downing Street communications chief, the final tipping point was reached just on July 4th when it was disclosed that the News of the World had listened to and, worse, deleted, the mobile phone messages of a murdered girl.
The intervening fifteen days have been nothing short of astounding. The swift closure of the offending newspaper was followed by mass resignations of senior executives to the point where it appeared that the only people left were the Murdochs themselves, and then finally by a set-piece grilling by a select committee, the more effective arm of the House of Commons. In the hearing, one of the world’s biggest and most durable media tycoons was put firmly “on the ropes”, largely by Tom Watson MP who has been outspoken on the issue for some time. This was a demonstration of British parliamentary democracy at its best – polite, without too much grandstanding, but comprehensive and incisive.
And then along came May-Bowles with his whistling trousers and custard pie. Not only does this kind of stunt give the news networks a sideshow to focus on at the expense of the main issue, but it gives apologists the chance to prattle on about security and disrespect in order to deflect attention. It gives Louise Mensch the chance to salute Murdoch senior’s courage, strength and indefatigability in hanging around to finish the session, safe in the knowledge that the entire building was on security lockdown. And it makes frustrated onlookers like me bang our heads on the nearest hard surface as another idiot diminishes our ability to take even the most serious matters seriously.