Galloway on the airwaves

Carey Davies reports on Talk Sport's newest presenter

Last weekend George Galloway took to the airwaves as the regular host of Talk Sport's "mother of all talk shows". Although, as you can gather from its name, this national radio station has a particular speciality, it also dips into current affairs - in a fairly superficial way, it must be said. Galloway has the 8pm-10pm slot on Saturday and Sunday evenings.

Of course, there is very little that will come as a surprise to anyone who has been following the trajectory of Galloway's career. Over the last few weeks in particular stories have appeared in the press about his possible next moves when his current stint as Respect MP for Bethnal Green and Bow comes to an end. These range from standing for the European or Scottish parliament to quitting electoral politics altogether in favour of becoming a TV presenter and general 'media personality'. It is more than possible that such stories have been meant as a warning to the Socialist Workers Party not to try to rein him in - there are, after all, plenty of other things he can do besides Respect.

Galloway has insisted on more or less complete freedom to operate as he pleases, and the SWP - the operative majority in Respect - has gone along with this. Using the excuse that Respect is a 'coalition', not a party, the SWP leadership has taken every step to avoid making this elected representative accountable.

The direction in which this path leads was illustrated most vividly in January, as Galloway strolled into the Celebrity big brother house, having only informed Respect 24 hours previously he was to take part. This threw the organisation into crisis, particularly as the SWP publicly announced its displeasure - not primarily because Galloway had contracted to do the show without consulting Respect, but because on principle such 'reality' TV programmes should not be touched with a barge pole. They not only exploit the participants, but debase the viewers, according to SWP commentators.

As this paper has reported, Galloway's participation ratcheted up the tension within Respect - he came in for strong criticism not only from the SWP, but most notably from the likes of Salma Yaqoob as well. His wince-inducingly bad performance on the game show did not help matters. Readers will recall, no doubt with a squirm, the revolting 'pussycat' episode with Rula Lenska, the leotard, the Elvis impersonation, his callous attacks on Jodie Marsh, and so on. By the time he was evicted, Galloway looked more like a crazed egoist with a feline fetish than a serious politician.

However, last weekend saw Galloway attempt to turn this image to his advantage. His theme tune on Talk Sport was 'Top cat', taken from the 1970s US cartoon by the same name - interspersed with a recording of the Commons speaker imploring "Order!"

By contrast to the Big brother episode, there was at least some coordination with Respect over Galloway's latest venture. I would not go so far as to say that he had consulted Respect first, let alone asked his party's permission, before agreeing to do the Talk Sport show, but there are clear signs that the SWP gave its stamp of approval. Whereas in January, while the media seemed to be reporting Galloway's every word, his every TV gesture, Respect's website was curiously silent on Big brother, the MP's appearance on Talk Sport is prominently advertised on the home page - and Respect members have been urged to phone in themselves.

For us, the main question here is the accountability of working class leaders. No tactic, not even Big brother, should be ruled out. Both Talk Sport and Big brother may be low-brow, but the crucial fact is that they are popular: the viewing and listening figures for these programmes are far higher than what most politicians, left or otherwise, will be accustomed to on a regular basis. Talk Sport claims a high of 1.5 million listeners for its weekday breakfast show and evening football matches, and is hoping that Galloway's "massively popular" slot will have boosted figures by as much as 10 times from the usual 170,000 for weekend current affairs talk shows.

While we can say that Galloway's appearance on Big brother turned out to be pretty worthless as a political tactic (although, when it comes to promoting oneself, it is said that no publicity is bad publicity), his radio show has so far been useful. It was refreshing (not to say bizarre) to hear the high-tempo sports chatter interrupted by Galloway gravely intoning the words, "I'm here to talk about shoot-to-kill". While Galloway's social democratic politics are, to put it mildly, a handicap, he does a good line in slamming Bush and Blair. And it must be said that he pushed the March 18 demonstration at every opportunity - no doubt the turnout will be increased as a result.

Of course, when Galloway says he wants to "be where the people are", we should not switch off our critical faculties in the manner of the SWP. However, there will be those drawn towards politics as a result of George's latest media foray that would otherwise remain isolated from it. This can only be good, not least because it presents an opportunity to engage these people with our politics.

The show itself was a mishmash of good, bad and outright wrong. Galloway has some degree of finesse as a presenter, but was often quite repetitive and at times boorish. Unsurprisingly perhaps for a man used to commanding attention, Galloway would often interrupt callers halfway through their argument to either noisily agree or shout them down, then complete a point of his own before moving on to the next punter - "Hello, Chris in London. Thank you for calling Talk Sport."

Of course, this is commercial radio, with lots of advertising breaks and the need to feature a variety of quick-fire points from different voices. But Galloway was strikingly unprepared to engage with people who disagreed with him - not only the obvious racists, but those espousing more mainstream, pro-establishment viewpoints. When one caller pulled Galloway up on the nature of the Iranian regime, he awarded the man the title of "plonker of the night" - a joke he must have repeated at least four times on the Sunday evening with little variation.

Galloway was introduced in the snippet preceding his programme as "a brave champion of freedom of speech" - Talk Sport should do its research: Galloway voted for the government's religious hatred legislation, which, especially in its original form, would have severely limited freedom of criticism with regard to religion.

In amongst the sound arguments against both shoot-to-kill and any aggression against Iran Galloway's social-patriotism came out clearly on several occasions. "Our police didn't used to go around routinely armed and shooting down our own people. Isn't that something we were most proud of in our country?" he asked Talk Sport listeners. He also conceded that the police, who are "trying to do their best in difficult circumstances", must as a last resort have the right to shoot terrorists dead - but only if they have seen the bomb that is about to be detonated (he said this was a precondition in Israel).

In arguing against any attack on Iran, Galloway pointed to the British troops who would be put at risk: "Iran will answer back in the south of Iraq, where there's 8,000 British soldiers surrounded by one million shi'ite muslims, many of whom are loyal to Iran. It will be like a rerun of the film Zulu"! Presumably Galloway was attempting to invoke in the minds of listeners an image of waves upon wave of unstoppable bearded fanatics, all rampaging towards British compounds in the manner of the Michael Caine film.

Predictably, Galloway had not a critical word to say with regard to the Iranian mullahs - Ahmadinejad has been "democratically elected", after all. Such an approach to politics is not only profoundly wrong; it also makes Galloway an easy target for rightwing criticism. It is therefore important that consistent democrats keep up their criticism of Galloway, who is now more than ever posing as a spokesman not just for Respect, but the entire left.

It is hard to judge whether Galloway's performance to date will have endeared him to his target audience. But the question is, will he use Talk Sport first and foremost to advance the working class cause? Or will he use it primarily to promote his own career?