Review Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age. By J.B. Thompson. Cambridge: Polity. 2000. 324 pp. Index. ISBN 0745625495. Thompson’s work on political scandal is the first scholarly treatment of the subject in a comprehensive and full-length text, and does not disappoint…
In contemporary politics and wider society, the story of a reputation or career undone by the publication of a scandal is familiar, but a key question is whether or not this phenomenon should be left to the tabloid journalists. I am inclined to agree with Thompson that the field deserves serious study. He was writing in the aftermath of the Bill Clinton sex scandal, and given the huge implication of that affair on American confidence in the President, and the way in which it gripped the attention of readers and watchers worldwide, the presence of the political scandal as a cultural phenomenon is worthy of study. Thompson acknowledges that for many academics, scandal constitutes ‘the froth of social and political life’ (2009, p.5), and can obscure the ‘real’ political and social events – the things really worthy of study. As he goes on to argue, scandal is one of these events, and should be considered ‘a social phenomenon in its own right’ (2000, p.6). From this solid starting point, Thompson embarks on a survey which ranges widely chronologically, if not, and this is to be regretted, geographically, and raises important questions about the role of media outlets in shaping contemporary political and public debate, and the changes in communication media that have brought scandals to the forefront on political life. What could have dissolved into an encyclopaedic treatment of notable political scandals ends up as a tight and thoughtful analysis, as the author undertakes a thorough analysis of the nature and importance of political scandals, and develops some theories as to their consequences. In the first three chapters he deals with the nature of scandal, and for the duration of the work he analyses scandal as a phenomenon and tries to explain their prevalence. In doing so, Thompson is to be commended for the wide range of sources used. His research was clearly exhaustive, covering not only traditional print media, but also biographies and autobiographies of key players in scandals, and television broadcasts, committee reports, and historical works. His scholarship is formidable and evident throughout. Thompson openly concedes that his account is limited, by and large, to scandals in the Anglo-American world, but gives little justification for this. He certainly remains within his area of expertise at all times, but this study could have benefited from parallels drawn between scandals in the UK and America and those which have unfolded elsewhere. Certainly, the Anglo-American political scene seems peculiarly susceptible to political scandal, perhaps because of the nature of its intrusive media. However, the second part of this book, in which Thompson develops an analytical framework and reflects on the issues raised, would have benefited from some comparisons with scandals elsewhere. Perhaps the role of scandal in post-war Italian political instability, or its role in discrediting some African presidents, would have been pertinent subjects for further exploration. Nevertheless, within the parameters he sets for himself, Thompson produces an effective and comprehensive work, and the framework he sets out for classifying, identifying and theorising about political scandal could doubtless be applied beyond the Anglo-American experience. Thompson traces back the etymological origins of ‘scandal’ to its Judaeo-Christian roots, and carries it through to its first appearances in English in the 16th ...
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