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On three pictures of Clegg, Assange and Obama, and how conventional wisdoms can be wrong

Posted on 17 December 2010 | 2:12pm

Papers wise I have only seen The Guardian and the Financial Times today and my eye was particularly drawn to three photos. One of Nick Clegg (FT). One of Julian Assange (Guardian). One of Barack Obama (FT). And they made me think of conventional wisdom.

I can find none of the pictures online so you will have to rely on my wordsmithery to communicate what they communicate, or else grab the nearest copy of these two papers.

Conventional wisdom was one of the themes in my speech to the (hugely enjoyable)Irish Marketing Society lunch yesterday; namely that conventional wisdoms often turn out to be wrong, because they tend to be born of a media elite settling upon a view that is then perpetuated by journalists repeating it (often to each other) without ever thinking there might be another view held by a large proportion of the public. Rule One (of many rule Ones!) of marketing – don’t confuse media opinion with public opinion.

Conventional wisdom of Nick Clegg is that he used to be a hero and now he is a zero. I always thought the hero thing was overdone – wow, he strung a few sentences together in the first TV debate of the election, swoon swoon – and likewise the zero thing is overdone too, though perhaps not as much as the hero thing was.

So the picture of him on the front of the FT, had it appeared in the hero phase of his leadership, would have summoned up conventional wisdom descriptions of tough, rugged, good-looking, determined, modern (no tie blah), focused. He looks a little like Colin Firth, the actor who came out for him during hero phase and has abandoned him now that the zero hour has beckoned.

In the photo, illustrating a story in which he (again) warns that he will stamp his feet a lot, he jolly well will, about bank bonuses, he is looking down towards the ground. His lips appear tense, his face rather drawn. And now that he is thought to be struggling, he looks well, rather sad, a bit lonely, hunted even. I have no idea when it was taken but the same photo can provoke different reactions according to circumstances past, present and future. It is the conventional wisdom that we put upon the photo that changes, not the photo itself.

Mr Assange, relegated to a single column in the FT, needless to say appears on the front of The Guardian (current circulation director Mr W Leaks).

Fair to say there is no clear conventional wisdom surrounding Mr Assange, who has only recently become very well-known. To some, he is a fearless campaigner for truth and freedom of information. To others, including some who know him well, he is a rather odd and attention-seeking individual with something of a Messiah complex, an aggressor now able to pose as victim. To some, he is a  menace to good governance, whose irresponsibility will provoke damage as yet unseen, and to some (ott) Americans a terrorist. And to two women in Sweden, he is a sex offender nonetheless able to garner unconditional support from lawyers and others normally at the front of the queue to defend women against attack by men.

In the picture selected for the front of the Guardian you can see all those things depending on your point of view. Think freedom fighter and the tired eyes and unshaven chin say he never stops working for the truth. Think attention seeker and you wonder how he managed to keep his hair (he is the David James of information campaigners when it comes to changing his hair) so well coiffed in prison and whether the vest plus unshaven look was, well, a look; like the look he gave from the prison van in a previous Guardian frontpage shot. Think menace and he looks rather threatening. Think sex offence and he looks a bit seedy. But the point is the photo can challenge as well as vindicate whatever view people may hold.

The best conventional wisdom challenger is the photo in the FT of Obama visiting US troops in Afghanistan. I love it, and wish that I could show it here.

The current conventional wisdom of Obama is that he was a great candidate but has been a let down as president. A spin-off from that CW is that he has been weak on defence matters and is not popular with the military.

Yet the hope and enthusiasm in the eyes of the troops is every bit as powerful as the feelings which overwhelmed so many during his election. At the back, virtually everyone (apart from a member of his staff, the only non-uniformed person in the picture) is trying to get Obama’s picture. In the middle, everyone is smiling (apart from said staff member) We cannot see if Obama is smiling because he has his back to us, and a woman soldier is hugging him, her face a picture of sheer happiness . At the front, all around him and her, they have joy on their faces and love in their eyes. It rather cheered me up. I like it when CWs turn out to be wrong.

  • Rick Glanvill

    If Assange’s “sex crimes” relate, as reported, to not using a condom during consensual sex (or one splitting during use) he is hardly an exemplar of male oppression.

    I’m sure you have your very good and altruistic reasons for adding to his personal vilification though. Maybe you should be a little more transparent about them.

  • Colin Hall

    Shame you cannot show the pictures but FT paywall?? Murdoch gets in neck but they do the same …

  • Stevensvalerie7

    I agree Alastair that photographs are used to illustrate present attitudes. Not least the awful ones of Gordon Brown towards the end of the Labour years. One thing to remember though the media view of men is largely defined by men and they see things differently from women. Clegg to me has always had the polished look of a lightweight and not particularly manly in rugged way. Julian Assange always looks a little strange whereas I have not seen a bad picture of Obama. He has a natural athleticism that politicians in the main lack. Perhaps if more women’s views are taken by picture editors we might have different pics

  • Keith Hinde

    Clegg is getting what he deserves. He posed as a different kind of politician and is actually worse than the Tories. Osborne actually believes in what he is doing, Clegg supports it because it means he stays in power. But he will not be there for long.

  • Pauline Collier

    Good point about the media just talking to each other. 24 hour news in particular is now just a journalist talking shop, and boring as a result

  • Print is an inherently exclusive media. It has never been able to publish all the information it could. As such it has always been, objectively, a as much a means of censorship as distributing ‘truth’ or ‘conventional wisdom’. And the reliance of newspapers on their advertisers mean that they have significant control over editorial policy. Which redefines conventional wisdom with every twist and turn of the property market (especially).
    The advent of open-source journalism, from Assange to the 12 year old Masai boy uploading videos via his OX1, flows information around this traditional barrier like a river around a shopping trolley.
    The new, global conventional wisdom is based on this access to the means of production, distribution and exchange, and has many implications, not least for the defunct concept of the nation state, a relic of the steam age, and one in dire need of re-evaluation. No wonder politicians are shaking in their shoes.

  • Robert Jackson

    The Assange business makes me uncomfortable on several levels – both in his defence and not.

    Assange claims the ground of the whistleblower yet most whistleblowers see ONE major wrong and put themselves at considerable personal risk over the ONE issue to attempt to right that ONE wrong.

    Instead we are seeing more of the prerogative of the lady of the night throughout history – power without responsibility – to publish a string of items without us knowing whether they are a complete set of wrongs or selected. If selected we cannot check if there is bias in that selection because we cannot know what is being held back.

    As to the other stuff – ?

  • Alastair – it would be good to hear your views on Assange as a journalist. He claims to be a publisher and an investigative journalist, yet it appears that he merely passes on the metaphorical brown envelope to media outlets without any checks or verifications. Surely an investigative journalist would seek to verify a leak from a number of sources before publishing? I agree that there is something weird and victim-like about him. Whether he is a sex offender remains to be seen.

  • It’s more of a register wall than a paywall. Prefer the FT way of doing it – limited articles free – lots of articles expensive…

  • Robert

    Alastair, thank you for the blog. I’m just going to float a thought. A thought I had as I walked back from the newsagents with my copy of the Guardian this lunchtime. I wondered if I paid more money – let’s say 40p more per day – whether the Guardian would produce a run of the paper that doesn’t have anything about WikiLeaks in it? I’m bored of it now and I wasn’t that interested in the first place. The initial shock revelations weren’t that shocking and now it is just dragging on an on. Maybe it will be safe to go back to the Guardian in Easter – they might have worked through the memory stick by then.

  • Richard Brittain

    Great blog post. Couldn’t agree more about Nick Clegg and Julian Assange. That latter is so annoying. He was let free and immediately dissed the British justice system. He thinks he is some sort of champion of justice, when the reality is he’s a hacker accused of sex offences who runs a website which publishes people’s secrets. What a nerd.

  • Conventional wisdom has huge inertia though. Once ingrained, it’s very difficult to shake. What is most likely to save Obama is that he is currently being compared to expectations. Come the next election he will be compared to anther candidate. In this situation he has every chance of shining again…

  • Hadley Collider

    Yeah, that’s not entirely true. The split condom thing stems from the allegation that when a condom split during (consensual) sex and Miss A requested they stop, he carried on. Forcefully. Altogether Assange is accused (not charged) with one count of unlawful coercion, two of molestation and one count of raping a woman while she was asleep.

    Full details here:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/dec/17/julian-assange-q-and-a