This morning, an interview with comedian Frankie Boyle was published in the Guardian. Boyle divides many, frequently crossing between the borderlines of offensive and risky, of malicious and cheeky, depending on your point of view. In the interview, he criticises the BBC’s Have I Got News For You for being safe and middle-class and obvious: ‘it’s people laughing at “John Prescott is fat” jokes long after he’s retired’. But Boyle, especially in his Tramadol Nights (C4) is just as lazy. For him, the jokes may be smarter, more biting, more challenging (they aren’t), but the jokes are always on the same people: celebrities. Jordan, Kerry Katona, Rebecca Adlington – there is little of intelligence or satirical value in his attacks on these figures. The reason we laugh at Boyle and at “John Prescott is fat” jokes? Because they’re celebrities. Because we think they can take it. Because, in the UK, with our media culture, our collective attitude to celebrity, nothing is below the belt.
At the Leveson Inquiry this week, the testimonies of Hugh Grant, Steve Coogan and others highlighted exactly this problem. For too long, the British press have been intruding into the lives of celebrities, offering their personal lives as breakfast and commuting entertainment, selling us another’s family crisis as some cock-eyed window of truth into the murky underworld of celebrity life. The British public want to know, we are told. They have a right to it. Celebrities like Hugh Grant sell their images, movies and albums to us all the time, so we’re just taking something back, no? Grant lives off the back of a PR character he has created and we’d be none the wiser lest the brave folks of the gutter press were there when we needed them to shatter the heinous myth – right? Except, as Grant rightly explained to the Inquiry this week, it’s not just celebrities that suffer from the invasions of the press. The parents of Madeleine McCann and Millie Dowler, for example, traded on no such image. They had not thrown themselves into our living rooms, onto the sides of our buses, in the leaves of our magazines to sell products to us. They were the victims of a custom cruelly forged to wring real life of sex, death, murder, scandal and tragedy like sweat from a towel, a custom flimsily shielded by lofty, barely-comprehensible appeals to free speech and the free transfer of knowledge.
But this isn’t a blog about the phone hacking scandal and the overreaching arm of the British press. Wiser people than me have said finer things than these. Besides, it seems that the scandal is only interesting to the machinery of the executive now that non-celebrities have been found to be victims of the press. Does this not raise an alarm as to our view of the rights of celebrities? Have the British tabloids not – for decades – spun us a line that the personal life of the celebrity is open to all? The press have tried to convince us for too long that the life of a celebrity is worth less than yours – that their liberties and those of their families are owned communally by all who purchase their products. And we are convinced. We flooded in our millions to buy the McCanns’ trauma as it unravelled, day by day, in the press. If we bought that newspaper, we were part of the problem. We were convinced. We trekked in our millions to buy the sex scandals of Ryan Giggs, David Beckham and John Terry. We scorn and splutter in our millions when Jordan is on our front pages or on our television screens. If we buy those newspapers, we’re all part of the problem. We are convinced. We are so patronised and medicated by the press that we take these stories to be ‘news’, so ill-thought-of are we by newspaper editors that this is all our ickle, wickle brains can take. Does celebrity ‘news’ exist because we want it, or are we told that we want it and we just don’t know to wonder any differently? If it all disappeared tomorrow, would we miss it? Everyone loves a scandal – as social animals obsessed with stature, we always have and possibly always will. It’s not unambitious to say that we probably can’t stop this obsession. But our media culture propagates turgid and relentlessly nihilistic spite trumped up as ‘news’, dressed up as social comment on just was has happened to ‘integrity’ and ‘class’ and accompanied by nostalgia (devoid of irony) that lusts for ‘celebrity’ like back in the days when the famous were famous for Something Good. But what we can stop is a neutered, comatose acceptance of celebrity gossip as something we are entitled to. We aren’t. Let’s give it up.
It is a victory that the Leveson Inquiry is happening at all. If it begins a national conversation about what our media should look like, then it is a positive start. But the Inquiry will do nothing to stop this culture. The Inquiry exists only because non-celebrities have been revealed as victims. Only – it seems – only under those conditions do we care about privacy. Plumbers, car salespeople, IT technicians, driving instructors – all of them trade under an image. But unless they are famous, they retain their right not to be followed home, not to be chased in cars and run over, not to have their personal calls hacked. It’s not funny, Frankie Boyle, if Rebecca Adlington has a face like a spoon. It’s funny because none of us care even slightly if she is hurt by the joke – because she’s famous, she can take it. It’s time we stopped devaluing celebrities as worth less than ourselves, time we dusted down a few trite old words about stones and glasshouses and time we realised that if we allow the press to treat the rich and famous like this, they will always – always – find a way to do it to everyone else. Like they did to the Dowlers and the McCanns. Like they will this week – routinely, systematically – to Gary Speed’s family. And we’ll read all about it.