Tony Blair – GQ’s philanthropist of the year. Don’t be outraged – it’s PR

Posted by: Dr John Jewell

It doesn’t take someone with the mentality of a conspiracy theorist to conclude that the decision by GQ magazine to name Tony Blair as philanthropist of the year was one taken in the full knowledge that it would generate a huge amount of publicity.

The GQ awards are known for their propensity to ‘shock’ –   last year, professional controversialist Russell Brand was dramatically  thrown out of the ceremony for highlighting that Hugo Boss, the event’s sponsor, had links to the Third Reich. Brand said: ‘If anyone knows a bit about history and fashion, you know it was Hugo Boss who made uniforms for the Nazis‘………But they looked f***ing fantastic, let’s face it, while they were killing people on the basis of their religion and sexuality.’

So when Blair accepted his award last night speaking  of the pulse of progress beating a little harder, it was not long before the tablets and phones of Britain lit up with quickened pulses of the ‘outraged taking to Twitter’. The Mail Online dutifully recorded the disgust of the British public. A James Headspeath tweeted, ‘Tony Blair has won philanthropist of the year at the GQ awards seeing off tough competition from Kim Jung Un and Isis whilst another tweeter wrote that, Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin are not amused’. For good measure and to validate the nation’s indignation, the Mail Online demonstrated that the world of celebrity had also voiced its disapproval. Gary Lineker tweeted, Finally these awards have grasped irony. This was not just tabloid fodder – The Guardian  and The Independent online also highlighted the Lineker tweet and various other bemused and annoyed reactions.  Labour MP John Mann said, ‘“It sends the wrong message. This sort of award should go to an unsung hero who has given up their time for charity,”

Returning to the phrase, ‘the outraged took to Twitter’ Can there be a more a more dispiriting phrase in modern journalism? The frequency with which article after article resorts to screen grabs from the serially outraged to exemplify the nation’s supposed disgust (at any ‘event’) is evidence not so much of lazy writing but of modern news culture’s demand for ‘new news, all the time, 24/7’. I would argue that it is precisely this situation which creates the environment for PR stunts such as Blair’s award to succeed in gaining news currency.

Let’s be sure about GQ’s motives, too. Richard Dodson, the awards producer, freely admitted that Blair was chosen because he was likely to garner publicityDodson told 5 live breakfast, ‘”We like to have celebrities at our event who cause a bit of a stir. So having Tony was fantastic. We like to have people who have opinions and are forthright.’

It is vital for GQ to generate publicity whenever it can. These are perilous times for the magazine sector of publishing – as the Press Gazette reported, the UK’s 503 magazines audited by ABC lost print sales at an average rate of 6.3 per cent year on year in the second half 2013. GQ sales were down by -4.4% over the same period. The fact that some may consider the current furore negative publicity for GQ is neither here nor there – the principal aim is brand awareness. In this sense GQ occupies the same territory as clothing manufacturer American Apparel, this week rebuked by the Advertising Standards Authority for its “offensive” adverts for school wear which  had the “potential to normalise predatory sexual behaviour” towards young women. The ASA ruled that images featured on the retailer’s website and Instagram account were “gratuitous”, “sexist” and “objectified woman”.  It’s doubtful whether this will bother American Apparel, though – It is the sixth time in the past two and a half years that the ASA has banned it ads because of the perceived offensiveness of its imagery. At the same time, its Twitter account today has 515k followers. In January, that stood at 466,000 followers, which was then a 40 % increase compared to two years ago.

I’m well aware that even brief commentaries such as this help to perpetuate the conversation around GQ thus in a way legitimizing its decision to capitalise on the obviously contentious choice of Blair. But let’s remember that GQ is style magazine. It’s not The New Statesman or the Spectator.  Other award recipients last night were Kim Kardashian, named woman of the year and Ringo Starr who was named humanitarian of the year. Even if we are surprised by the concept that anyone should see fit to name Blair as philanthropist of the year, let’s not be outraged by the GQ award. Let’s see it for what it is – PR – and not conflate Twitter anger with the real thing.