ife takes some odd turns, from pools wins to redundancy.
We often live two lives. One is the real one of drudge and
making do; a life which is about getting by and surviving
the troubles that we face every day. The other life is the
one fuelled by the media. Who wants to be a millionaire?
do. The media has created a set of assumptions that are so
tempting. If only it was me I could leave this mundane and
boring life behind me and reinvent myself as novelist, film
director or super lover. The National Lottery has got a lot
to answer for, but people's desire to get out of themselves,
the wish to transform their lives is probably as old as humanity
and cannot completely be blamed on capitalism or Sky TV.
What has changed, as a result of the media reaching into
our very being, is how we conceptualise our wants. The most
obvious recent development is the growth of the cult of personality
which would put the late and unlamented Joe Stalin and Chairman
Mao in the shade. Famous for being famous seems to be the
current flavour of the month. How many of us come across articles
in the newspapers or features on television which are about
people who have nothing going for them apart from the fact
that they are well known? The most extreme recent examples
are Big Brother and Popstars, where people's celebrity, or
should we say notoriety, is utterly and completely manufactured.
I recently spent Saturday evening in a restaurant with people
very like me, the educated middle class, who started arguing
as to who they wanted voted out of the Big Brother house.
That particular programme has a significance because it's
not simply invented celebrity, but also the new cultural brutalism
most clearly illustrated by the Weakest Link, where cruelty
and selfishness become traits to be admired rather than criticised.
We can always admire people who have real talents. David
Beckham is a genuinely great footballer, not simply a product
of media hype. Therefore maybe he deserves his fifteen minutes
of fame more than most of us. However, when the media machine
really takes over it is very difficult to decide what is overblown
public relations and what is what Marshall McLuhan described
back in the 1960s as a media event, that is something that
would not have happened if the media had not been present.
Politicians court personalities, Gerri Halliwell in Labour's
election broadcast being an obvious example. New Labour is
infatuated with celebrity, with people who have a high media
profile and can guarantee newspaper coverage and television
soundbites. As AC Grayling has recently put it "individuals
might have all the brains in the world, but if they are not
photogenic, they are nothing. They might have talent, but
if they lack glibness, they remain anonymous. They might have
ideas, but if they have no TV training, they are as if dumb.
It follows that, in our society, we do not have leadership,
we have political advertising."
The celebritization of the media and politics seems to know
no bounds. We are enticed into a world where everything and
everybody becomes a potential tabloid front page. As Ziauddin
Sardar has said "this urge to acquire celebrity status
is the ethic on which everything in our world now depends.
Celebrity is the main currency of our economy, the prime value
in our news and the main impetus in our charitable works.
It is the predominant means of giving and receiving ideas,
information and entertainment. Nothing moves in our universe
without the imprint of celebrity."
What is it that is so strange about contemporary society
that we have to live it through other people's experiences?
We do not experience the world at first hand but at second
hand. The cable channel E4 has been offering us Big Brother
Live from early in the morning, which comes down to TV coverage
of people being asleep. I just don't get it. What is that
attraction of watching live coverage of people wrapped up
in their duvets and snoring? It just isn't very interesting.
Has society taken a new tack that makes the Jerry Springer
Show look like one of Hegel's lesser known works? It is always
tempting to go for the lowest common denominator. Jeremy Bentham,
after all, believed that push-pin was as good as poetry. In
this, as in so many other of his thoughts, he was wrong. How
do we raise the quality of popular culture? How do we say
that ordinary ideas need not be trivial and pathetic and not
reach out to the lowest common denominator? Can we speak out
for a culture which may not be worth its weight in gold but
is worth something?
It is so easy to bemuse ourselves with notions of celebrity.
We are not important. The only people who are important are
those who are able to scoop the pages of Hello or OK,
the tabloids or manage to get themselves on to breakfast TV.
What is so nasty about all this is not the people themselves.
I don't know anything about Geri Halliwell or David Beckham.
They may be completely pleasant people but they are being
turned into agents of a media culture which is by any interpretation
perverse. Surely we don't want this. Surely we don't want
a situation where people are only famous for being famous.
Who is Tamara Beckwith? Why do people appear on television
or in the newspaper only because they appear on television
or in the newspapers?
I am a big fan of OK and Hello. I read them avidly when I
go to my local hairdresser's, but there is a problem. The
world they depict is one where the minor aristocracy, musicians,
sports stars, people from soaps and even politicians all merge
into a world where nothing matters except who knows you. Surely
we should aspire to a world where what really matters is what
we know and what we do.
Even during the election campaign politics did not feature
that much on the front pages of the tabloid press (unlike
in 1997). Even attempts by the Daily Star to enliven the campaign
by supporting surgically-enhanced glamour model Jordan in
her (unsuccessful) bid to become an independent MP came to
nothing. Soaps, pop stars and show business pushed politicians
on to the inside pages. When they did appear as front page
stories it was in a context which treated them as personalities.
Tony Blair featured with his wife, father or daughter as though
he had just scooped a rollover; The Mirror showed Hague with
the headline "X marks the clot", as if he was just
about to be evicted from the Big Brother house, or had been
guilty of a "marsupial moment" on Who Wants to be
No wonder turnout was so low. The Sun, backed by Jack Straw
and Ann Widdicombe, tried to encourage voters with a battle
bus staffed by a trio of blondes, but its heart was not in
it. It was not just that readers were more interested in soap
stars and footballers, but that soap stars and footballers
were genuinely more interesting than politicians. Offered
the choice between two versions of the same thing, neo-liberal
free market policies, why not read about Michael Barrymore
or tune into the Weakest Link instead?
The manufactured world of celebrity becomes more real to
most people than that of politicians who in turn have been
manufactured by spin doctors and image consultants. Hearsay
are just as "real" as the Cabinet and somewhat less
Does any of this represent a qualitative change in society?
The answer, as ever, is yes and no. Show business or sports
stars have always been important. Marie Lloyd and Fred Perry,
in their days, had as much adulation as any Spice Girl or
Manchester United player today. What has changed is the scale
of the entertainment industry which has become self-reverential
and self-referencing. The doings of a "Corrie" or
"Brookie" actor are front pages for the tabloids
whilst in Hello they "invite us into their lovely home".
This will spill over directly into politics, as in the United
States, where sports stars and actors go on to a career in
politics because they have celebrity, high profile and access
Actor Tony Robinson sits on Labours' NEC and former Eastenders
star Michael Cashman sits as a Labour MEP. It is rumoured
that Labour General Secretary Margaret McDonough even suggested
a "celebrity slate" for the NEC made up entirely
of showbiz and sports stars. The days of people becoming famous
for being politicians are coming to an end. In the future
the only way of becoming a politician may be by being famous.