Read what used to be a ‘serious’ newspaper, listen to the BBC news or check your local newsagent’s middle shelf and take stock of how much room is being given to news, essential information and picture-stories about the clothes, lives and goings-on of ‘celebrities’. It’s not a new phenomenon but it’s continued to creep up on us and full-scale reportage of anything that has a hint of celebrity is now very much the norm. Last week and then again this week it’s been the alleged infidelities of John Terry, the now former captain of the England football team. I was astounded to see the unfolding of his removal from the captaincy take up nearly half-an-hour as the main story on the evening news. Pundit after pundit was rolled on and asked inane questions about the affair or the personalities involved and, given that neither Terry nor his alleged paramour were saying anything and that the laws of libel precluded anyone airing any really exciting speculation, there was actually very little to say.
Before John Terry grabbed the headlines it was the continuing ‘are they together/aren’t they together’ saga of Brad and Angelina. Looking through the Sunday Times last week, I was confronted with another update on Brad, Angelina and, joining them in splendid unimportance, Jennifer Aniston. Once again, no one was saying anything in public so the ‘news’ was speculation.
The fuss about John Terry started when he had his ‘super-injunction’ lifted. The failure of his attempt to stop the press reporting and no doubt speculating on his private life has meant that we’ve all had a generous helping of celebrity since. Granted that he is a competent and often fearsome footballer but as a personality, well, what is there to say? And why should who he is justify anything more than the slightest ripple of interest? The public consequences for him, his family, the English football team and various individuals were spectacular – according to the media – but are proving short-lived and of little consequence; I doubt very much that the winning of the World Cup this summer hangs on it. Regrettably, the private ramifications will likely be more significant. Mind you, according to this week’s instalment a reconciliation is underway.
Of more interest, however, was a bit in the press about the appropriateness of the judicial decision and concerns that such super-injunctions would be cast out as they restricted free speech. Yes, there’s some truth there but I suspect that the concerns being raised (and the loudest were from the press) were more to do with a lack of access to celebrity than they were with gagging Fleet Street. After all, the reporting of issues that are genuinely in the public interest and having the democratic right to do so is very different from being unrestricted in telling the tale of who is shagging who. That holds even if the public wants to hear it. The point is, why should we have had anything more than a passing interest in who he has carnal knowledge of, where his wife has run to for solace (last week the Sunday Times carried a photograph of her on a beach in Dubai) or the personal insights of peripheral and patently unqualified figures such as footballers ex-girlfriends? Now this week, in the putative serious press and on the BBC, we were provided with a celebrity update that had more space than the quickly-forgotten Haiti earthquake, which was a very short month ago; he’s gone to Dubai and they are doing their making-up in public. There are rumours that the public show of affection was stage-managed but, wait a moment, wasn’t he trying to stop invasions of his privacy with the super-injunction in the first place?
An interesting documentary shown on Channel 4, The September Issue, told the story of American Vogue putting its September 2007 edition to bed. In it, a significant comment from Grace Coddington, Senior Fashion Editor, caught my attention. It was that Anna Wintour, the Editor-in-Chief, had been one of the first to see the dawn of the cult of celebrity and in doing so demonstrated the vision that has made her so formidable. The cover shoot used in the film had another celebrity, Sienna Miller, sporting lank hair and a marked lack of charisma against a series of Italian backdrops. The reason tired old Sienna was there was not because of any acting accomplishments or modelling successes (unless we count being topless for Pirelli as a success) or even because she was particularly beautiful; it was because she was famous for being a celebrity. And Ms Wintour had identified a need to put celebrity on the cover of Vogue as part of the ongoing success of the publication.
It was astute and clearly right on the mark as far as identifying trends goes but why are we so fascinated with the lives of celebrities? It’s all nonsense to me and I’m trying to work out why it has such importance to the media. A couple of thoughts occur to me. First, it’s cheap news of course; an easy way for the media – I’m reluctant to write ‘journalists’ – to fill space and be able to headline it as news. Second, it seems to me that along with the aspiration to be famous, the study of celebrity is a favoured and comfortable retreat from the mediocrity of most people’s lives. It’s also easier on the soul and less taxing on the brain than thinking about serious issues, be they global warming, the good old economy or the manner in which the Western World is going down the drain. I also think a lot of people find it hard just coping with life from day-to-day. There’s never been so much pressure to look good, to achieve and to follow trends described so earnestly for us by the style media. In some respects, seeing rich, glamorous and, yes, famous people’s lives being raked over every day probably adds to that pressure. The more we are convinced of the necessity of hearing the latest celebrity news the more we seem to need another fix – they keep serving it up and an increasingly less selective audience becomes ever more ravenous for the next helping. Where they go, what they wear, were they drunk or involved in a punch-up? Oh yes, and issuing pearls of wisdom on world events.
Keeping a newspaper solvent or maintaining revenue – whether from advertising or a licence fee – requires a significant audience and you could argue that any means of achieving it is justified. Perhaps the cult of celebrity is a part of that justifiable means. As far as the public is concerned, certainly here in the UK at least, it is and we can’t get enough of it.
We’ve read that young people say that they ‘want to be famous’ and that they aspire to fame as it represents the greatest success in life. A survey taken of about 70 members of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers in 2008 found that over half, 53%, believed that their pupils idolised David Beckham and that Victoria came in as a close second. The underlying but significant concern is that their pupils felt it wasn’t necessary to achieve academically to be a celebrity. I’m scratching my head over this – how did we get to the point where a significant part of our society genuinely believes that success means being famous for being famous? And what happened to our once-revered media, when lead stories and so-called news involves the picking-apart of behind-doors infidelity and photographs of couples slugging out their relationships in public? One thing’s for certain – I’m glad I’m not famous.