The fact that I have to write that as my opening gives you an idea of how paranoid we’ve become of the buzzards that hang in the high glare of the sun, ready to swoop down and pick the soft belly meat from anybody foolish enough to stand apart from the herd. Words have to be chosen carefully in these hot days lest they give a hint that we might not be thinking the right thing or making a point which isn’t part of the day’s narrative. It is a way of living life devoted to Newspeak, what Orwell warned us would ‘narrow the range of thought’:
In the end we shall make thought-crime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it. Every concept that can ever be needed will be expressed by exactly one word, with its meaning rigidly defined and all its subsidiary meanings rubbed out and forgotten.
So, I choose my words carefully because I want to write about the media response to the photographs of Charles Saatchi grabbing his wife, Nigella Lawson, around the throat. I want to talk about stories that create their own reality, where the facts are few and gaps invite speculation. From that, I want to make a distinction between justifiable debates about domestic abuse and the media’s response to individual cases.
Because, make no mistake, we are already slapping our sandals in the shallow waters of inference (‘if they did this, they must do that’) where we think that we know our celebrities (‘they are nice on TV so they must be nice in private’) and we delude ourselves with deductive fallacies (Person A hurts person B; Person A is a man; therefore all men would hurt Person B). Yet the way I pose that makes even me feel edgy. It sounds like I’m already setting up a defence for Saatchi when I’m not going to defend him for one miserable buttoned-up-collar of an inch. I’m simply trying to make a distinction between facts and journalistic narrative.
Take for instance Roy Greenslade who wrote an apology in today’s Guardian. He’d previously responded to the photographs by trying to keep a degree of journalistic detachment, concerned as he was, with ‘rushing to judgement’.
Sometimes one is too close to a story, and this is the irony: I was clearly over-compensating for the fact that I have been a friend of Nigella's ever since we were colleagues on the Sunday Times more than 20 years ago.
In order to be scrupulously fair about the incident, showing no favour to a friend, I went way in the wrong direction.
That’s very noble of him except I see nothing wrong with his staying loyal to his journalistic instincts. His apology feels like it was just an easier thing to do than making his serious point at length. Yet it’s not even the reliable self-aware journalists like Greenslade that should be making us cautious. We need to be wary of the dead-eyed sharks that already circle the reef having recognised a familiar taste of blood in the water.
This story is too big not to attract the man-eaters in search of easy meat. After all, this is about a beautiful best-selling author and TV chef, the daughter of a Tory Chancellor, who married an advertising troll decades older than herself and who, himself, rose to fame by marketing the Conservative Party before using his millions to turn the debate about contemporary art from aesthetics and into one about corporate greed. She’s young and he’s old, she cooks healthy food and he enjoys bad food and smokes incessantly. She is buxomly lovely and sexy and he is gnarled, crabby and difficult. The whole thing is set up for morbid soap opera morality and anybody who dares utter a hesitant or complex word will ultimately, like Greenslade, be forced to issue an apology.
That’s partly the problem. This story has everything it takes to be the new big issue. Even if the story ends now that Saatchi has accepted a police caution, it’s a tale that will grow in the telling until journalistic fingers are bloody stumps no longer able to hammer out a byline. To some, the story will summarise life on this planet: the oppression of women by men, the violence inherent in capitalism. It can be made to be about avarice or class or bad teeth or smoking or even the right of the individual to intervene when they see wrong being done. ‘Surely, domestic violence is the grubby problem of the inarticulate and poorly educated,’ asks Anna Maxted rhetorically in the Telegraph, her point being that we are always surprised to discover when the rich and famous lead unhappy personal lives. Except it’s surely not at all surprising unless we have a ridiculously naïve notion of human nature, have never read any history, or believe only what’s fed to us in the press and the media.
Commentators are creatures of confidence and find their firmest footing on easy terrain. They tend to wear black and pose for a good photograph and this story will either fill them full of righteous anger or cloying sentiment, both of which are always easy to show off from the high moral bank. No doubt many were sitting crossed-legged on their beanbags late into the night, their Macbook Airs balanced on their laps, producing identical diatribes thoroughly exploiting the blatantly obvious whilst throwing in liberal examples of that sexism that dare not speak its name. Suzanne Moore at the Guardian has already asked this morning: ‘Was there a woman who saw those awful pictures of Nigella Lawson who didn't think "If he does this in public what does he do behind closed doors?"’
‘Was there a woman’! What about ‘was there a woman or man’? What difference does gender make to how we might view domestic assault? The implication is, of course, that men might think something different, perhaps ‘She was clearly asking for it!’ or ‘Go on, Charles, you show her who’s boss!’
Yet this slide into sectarianism should always be avoided when we’re trying to understand reality. Sectarianism of any kind makes life more difficult than it should otherwise be. We don’t know the reality of the private matters between Saatchi and Lawson but the evidence was damning enough for the police to become involved. That is where our facts end. The rest needs to be handled with sensitivity by people closer to the issue than front page headline writers and freelancers hastily concocting 800 words of specious reasoning for the morning edition. For the press, however, reality is often less important than the narrative that they can construct.
Too many in the media respond to complexity with broad strokes. In the case of Charles Saatchi, many of the messages are familiar and the subtexts even clearer: men are always mindless subjects to a violent heritage. We deserve to be chemically castrated or, if that’s not available, properly castrated. In fact, probably best to lop off our balls just to be certain... Every expression of masculine culture ultimately ends in oppression, violence, murder, genocide…
Except they are wrong in so far as it is every expression of human culture that can ultimately end in oppression, violence, murder, genocide. Evil is not exclusively a male trait or hobby. Consider this: we read about a rape and we are all rightly appalled. We read about female circumcision and we want governments to do something about an abhorrent custom that’s still practised around the world. Yet think about the last time you read headlines about a woman cutting off a man’s penis. Was the tone exploitative (probably), outraged (unlikely) or comic (undoubtedly). Read this at The Sun and explain why the husband is referred to as the ‘hubby’.
If abuse is the subject then the subject is abuse. If it proves that Charles Saatchi is an abusive bastard, it's because he's an abusive bastard. It's not inherently because he's a man. Why should the gender of the victim or assailant enter into it? Abuse is abuse. Intellectualising individual examples ultimately proves useless when that rot is capable of taking hold in the heart of every human being and every supposedly loving relationship. It should not be an opportunity to preach high-feminism or any other ideology as the eternal truth of the human condition. That’s why it was so refreshing to see how Sarah Ditum over at The New Statesman took one of the more considered positions, asking why nobody acted when they saw Saatchi grab Lawson. The answer is that all of us, press and readers alike, are too busy constructing our own narratives.
We gaze at reality through the screen of our mobile phones, turning it into TV so as to make ourselves passive observers incapable of action. We are taught to know our place, stay safe and let others deal with problems. Nobody acts, irrespective of whether we’re looking at the all-too-silent horror of domestic abuse or the public horror being perpetrated in Syria. Only when we stop thinking that we know all too well what is happening, labelling everything as ‘the same old story’, might we actually start to look and understand what is actually going on.
In science, you commit what’s called ‘confirmation bias’ when you choose the facts that most favour your hypothesis. The cowardly actions of Charles Saatchi appear to confirm one feminist hypothesis. But not all men are Charles Saatchi.
Possibly the only truth out there is that, men and women alike, we are all capable of being Charles Saatchi.