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One of His Nine Lives May Be Up

A fiery lawmaker draws heat for taking part in Britain's version of the 'Big Brother' reality show. Impersonating a kitty didn't help.

January 14, 2006|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

LONDON — He befriended Saddam Hussein, verbally dueled with a U.S. senator and handed Britain's Labor Party a bloody nose in the last elections. But George Galloway, the feisty working-class, cigar-puffing left-wing politician, turns out to be a closet pussycat.

That, at least, is what British audiences saw this week as Galloway, 51, served as a contestant on the lowbrow TV show "Celebrity Big Brother."

On Thursday night, he pretended to be a cat, down on all fours, cradled by 57-year-old self-described "crazy Polish countess" Rula Lenska and as he contentedly made purring sounds.

The fiery Parliament member from the antiwar Respect party shows no self-respect and no respect for the voters who elected him, critics charge.

The Labor Party, scoring easy political points, has launched a petition campaign in his constituency demanding that Galloway leave the house of "Big Brother" and get back to the House of Commons.

Not only was Galloway missing an important debate about a rail line running through his district in Bethnal Green and Bow in East London, but he was behaving immorally during an important religious holiday for his largely Muslim constituents, critics said.

For many Britons, it was just unseemly for any member of Parliament to be on a reality TV show with a cross-dressing male singer, the multi-tattooed and metal-studded ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman, an exhibitionist-minded former "Baywatch" actress, a spiky-haired Welsh rapper and the sex expert for a popular British men's magazine.

Galloway, a fierce critic of the Iraq war who also has been accused by investigators of benefiting from that nation's oil-for-food program, has had a ready answer for those who say he never should have gone on the show. (During his stint on it, he is incommunicado, although he continues to draw his Parliament salary.)

"I am doing it for the Palestinians," he said, pledging to use the much-watched program as a pulpit to express solidarity with Palestinians and the people of Iraq.

One problem, though, is that unbeknown to him, the producers have routinely edited out his political comments, saying the show isn't meant to serve as that kind of forum.

TV news reports and tabloid newspapers were plastered Friday with the image of Galloway as pussycat.

"No Respect for George," said the headline in London's Evening Standard. An editorial in the newspaper called him "an embarrassment."

Hilary Armstrong, the Labor Party whip in the House of Commons, went to Galloway's district, which includes the heavily Muslim street Brick Lane, and accused Galloway of missing "vital debates" in Parliament for the sake of his ego.

Seeing him behaving like a cat, making kitty sounds and lapping an imaginary bowl of milk "made me cringe," she said.

Galloway is no stranger to controversy. He raised eyebrows and hackles in Washington in May when, asked to testify before a Senate committee on his alleged receipt of a secret oil concession from Hussein, he came out swinging.

Galloway described the committee chairman, Republican Norm Coleman of Minnesota, as a "pro-war, neocon hawk and the lickspittle of George W. Bush." He called the oil-for-food investigation the Senate was then conducting "the mother of all smoke screens," intended to divert attention from the "real scandal" of the war in Iraq.

It was difficult to tell how much of the British outrage against Galloway's appearance was being orchestrated by political opponents, including the largely right-wing tabloid newspapers and the Labor Party, which narrowly lost a Parliament seat to Galloway, who ran on an antiwar platform. He ousted one of Prime Minister Tony Blair's political favorites, Oona King. But a website set up by a constituent, called Get Back to Work, George, reportedly has been receiving thousands of hits a day.

Rob Hoveman, a Galloway supporter and aide from Respect, defended his boss in a television interview Friday.

"The principal reason that George went on 'Big Brother' was to get across to a new generation of potential voters his antiwar, anti-violence and anti-Blair message," he said. "Now, he knew that in the course of that there may be the odd indignity to suffer. What he didn't know was that Channel 4 would censor all of his many political contributions in the house."

The current "Big Brother" began Jan. 5 and is scheduled to run until Jan. 25. To the potential relief of at least some, Galloway might be voted off before then.

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