Category Archives: Media

Exposing our private parts

Keith Lemon thought

Privacy. Has it vanished? Is there part of your life that you jealously protect, don’t want observed or discussed with other people and restrict to yourself and perhaps very close confidantes? Or do you live a life that’s pretty much open to inspection by all and which you’re happy to share with others, even people you don’t know and will probably never meet?

In the 1980s when BBC launched its show Through the Keyhole, it was a daring innovation: the host Lloyd Grossman led viewers into the homes of famous people, scrutinizing the décor and furniture in an effort to disclose aspects of their character. The show was predicated on the intellectually respectable assumption that the physical places in which people live offered a reliable reflection of aspects of their “real” personality rather than the public persona they presented to their audiences. It was a legitimate invasion of privacy and offered viewers a rare sight of the largely hidden side of the rich and famous.

Last Saturday, ITV revived the concept, replacing the vowel-strangling gastronome with “Keith Lemon,” alter ego of Leigh Francis. Unsurprisingly, the show removed any intellectual pretensions or ingenuity. The formula was camped up, but the pleasure it offered viewers was essentially the same.

At the time of the original series, most people would have felt slightly uncomfortable about wandering into the homes of other people and poking around their personal belongings. But only slightly. And when viewed through the filter of television, the whole experience seemed completely wholesome. The beauty of the show was that it effectively turned us into shameless peeping toms.  No one felt guilty about invading others’ privacy.

Since then, we have less respect for other people’s private lives. Celebrity culture is founded on our curiosity: we don’t just want to know about other people’s private lives – we demand they don’t have private lives at all. We insist on having access to all areas of their lives. And, in exchange, we’re prepared to share our own lives. Facebook, twitter and other social media have painlessly removed any semblance of privacy – or perhaps, more accurately, they have turned it inside out. Many people provide minutely detailed logs of their daily lives, complete with accounts of their own views, opinions, feelings, emotions and all kind of personal states that they wouldn’t have dreamt of discussing in public in the 1980s. In recent decades the old-school privacy has receded. Television has both initiated and responded to this. Just look at the Jeremy Kyle Show: people clamour to appear on telly to reveal the most intimately embarrassing details of their lives in front of 1.5 million viewers.

Privacy has been under assault in all sorts of other ways: CCTV cameras surround us, many of your newspapers and magazines are dedicated purely to discovering dirty little secrets, credit card companies store an astonishing amount of detail on us. And we don’t seem to mind; we just accept that today’s society is like a vast panopticon – a circular prison in which prisoners can at all times be observed.

We’re both parts of and creators of a voyeuristic culture: we neither object to be being watched and infiltrated, nor mind admitting that we enjoy watching and infiltrating others.  Ravenous for information on other people, not just celebs, but anyone we care about, we’ve become nosey parkers. If you don’t probe others’ lives, you can’t really care about them at all. No one, it seems, feels embarrassed about tweeting the kind of information that would have made them squirm a few years ago.

The new show is in this sense catches the zeitgeist much more than the original. Back in the 1980s every scene set a question and we, assisted by Grossman and, later, the recently deceased David Frost, were invited to supply an answer. Lemon is less complex. The problem is: does the new show still have the power to surprise? After all, part of the pleasure of the first show lay in the little thrill of penetrating someone else’s private domain. Now we know full well the homes may be owned or rented by someone else, but we also know they are allowing cameras free entry because they have to: they are just filling their side of a bargain. That’s part of the deal in celebrity culture: anyone with aspirations to become a celebrity has to surrender their private life. In a way we all surrender our private lives.

Consumers today insist on a constant stream of information and, if they don’t get it, they lose interest. Once that interest has gone, the celebrity is effectively consigned to oblivion. This is a problem for the new show: it’s going to have a tough time presenting us with anything new; so it can’t really surprise, less still shock us in the way the Grossman show managed. We’re no longer peeping toms who need our pangs of guilt assuaged. We’re inquisitive, intrusive, snooping eavesdroppers and not the least bit embarrassed by our nosiness.

In defence of Gordon Taylor

I’m not an admirer of Gordon Taylor, but I’ll defend his right to spend his £1 million yearly salary however he chooses. The papers are roundly condemning him for his gambling habit. The chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) – the players’ union – has warned his members about the dangers of gambling and has even used the term “zero tolerance” to deter his members from betting on matches. Certainly, there are strict rules about players betting on games in which they are involved. This is no more than common sense.

Taylor has also stated: “Gambling is possibly the biggest danger facing our members.” Even allowing for a measure of exaggeration, there is nothing inconsistent about this statement. Taylor may truly believe gambling does pose dangers for young men who find themselves in positions where they command the adulation of fans and the kind of money they could barely have dreamt of.

Taylor is acting responsibly if he advises his members to guard against gambling irresponsibly. But, if he enjoys a bet himself, so what? He earns the kind of money that allows him to place bets of £25,000 a pop without any undue discomfort. And if he ran up debts of £100,000, as one newspaper reports, so what? This is like someone who earns £50,000 a year owing £5,000 – a considerable chunk of change, but not ruinous.

Taylor’s advice to players on gambling has credibility: he is someone who obviously likes a bet and presumably enjoys the thrill or frisson that’s peculiar to gambling. So when he counsels players about the subject, his advice has substance because he knows about the attractions of gambling. Were the advice to come from a goody-goody who was sternly opposed to gambling, players would pay it no heed.

Who has the right to tell Taylor how to spend his money? He is not a gambling addict – in fact, there is no such thing: the medical profession abetted by uncritical social scientists has perpetrated this myth. Same goes for “problem gambler”: this is another fiction. There may be gamblers who have problems, but that is another phenomenon. And in any case, Taylor’s only problem at the moment is a pious media seemingly hell-bent on destroying him.

Were it discovered he drove an Aston Martin One-77 at just under a million quid, would he be disqualified from issuing guidance on expensive cars? Players favour Bentleys and Lamborghinis, as we know.

I have not agreed with many of Taylor’s decisions in the past and have criticised him for his stance on other issues, but, on this occasion, I am with him: he is perfectly entitled to spend his money however he chooses. Gambling is legal in the UK. It is not hypocritical for him to talk on the subject and offer advice to his members.

Football fans are not homophobic

The Crown Prosecution Service’s new initiative aimed to tackle, among other things, homophobia in football is badly conceived, poorly planned and misdirected. “As well as tackling violence, disorder and criminal damage, we will deal robustly with offences of racist and homophobic and discriminatory chanting and abuse and other types of hate crime,” says the CPS

Most of these are already punishable offences, though the issue of “homophobic” chanting and abuse is new. With my colleague Jamie Cleland, I’ve conducted research on the supposed homophobia among football fans: contrary to popular wisdom, a huge majority of fans oppose homophobia and think it has no place in football. In fact, most fans welcome the day a professional footballer will have the confidence to come out in Britain. There is only one pro player who is openly gay and he plays in America’s Major League Soccer.

Just under 10 per cent of fans questioned in the survey of 3500 fans expressed hostility to homosexuality and resented any liberalisation in attitudes towards gay players witnessed in other sports.

Nearly a quarter of all people playing, coaching or refereeing professional football personally know a gay player. This suggests that gay players are known inside the football industry, but are afraid to come out. Why? If it’s because of the possible reaction of crowds, they have nothing to fear. Gareth Thomas, a former Wales rugby union captain who later switched to rugby league, declared he was gay while still at the peak of his professional career. In only one instance did fans react with hostility; for the most part he was not subject to homophobic abuse.

Football fans barrack all players and, it’s true, they often use language that qualifies as homophobic. But in the occasionally baffling logic of football fans, this does not mean they hate, dislike or disapprove of gay players. It is, in the fan’s jargon, “stick” —  sharp but playful remarks designed to put opposing players off their game. There is, for sure, homophobia in football, but it lies in boardrooms and in the offices of football agents. Gay players are being persuaded that it’s in their best interests not to reveal their sexual preferences while they are still playing football professionally. Football clubs may fear the brand implications of being known as the first club in the English or Scottish leagues to have an openly gay player. Agents are no doubt wary of the effects on sponsorship deals – remember agents earn their commission on players’ earnings. The publicist Max Clifford, who is rumoured to have been consulted by at least three gay professional footballers, has revealed that he has advised footballers not to come out because the sport is “steeped in homophobia”.

Of course, it’s much easier to blame fans and introduce tough measures to silence them. Football will soon follow other professional sports and see some of its top players come out: in recent years, rugby union, hurling and tennis have seen star players reveal that they are gay while at the height of their careers.  It is not fans who are stifling them. The taboo surrounding gay players in football is a myth.

What connects 1D fans with the girls in Peru?

One Direction

Chaos theory concerns connections between seemingly unconnected events: like a temperature rise in the Atlantic initiating a hurricane across the Indian Ocean and a tsunami in the Pacific. 70,000 young people flocked to London’s Leicester Square to catch glimpse members of One Direction as they attended the premiere of the band’s film.  6,000 miles away in Lima, Peru, two 20-year old women attended their first formal hearing after being caught with £1.5million worth of cocaine hidden in their suitcases at the airport. They face up to 25 years in prison, if found guilty. The two events have a common source.

Young people today are fascinated by glamour: the attractive and exciting quality that makes certain people or things seem appealing has never gripped them so tightly. They are enchanted, captivated, thrilled by the glitz and pizzazz they find not just surrounding them but invading their imaginations.

<p class="MsoNormal" Directioners are not dimwits: they love the band, but they know that, in a sense Liam, Harry, Zayn, Niall and Louis are their proxy: after all, the band is a product of The X Factor and its success on the show (3rd place, 2010) was made possible by viewers’  — in other words, their — votes. 1D fans are rightly proprietorial – they behave as if they own the band. So when they see the band enjoying the highlife, appearing in every conceivable media, leaping from one triumph to another, they too experience a strong vicarious gratification.

Michaella Connolly and Melissa Reid may be fans of the band.  Even if they’re not, I’m sure they share with Directioners the craving for what the writer Christopher Lasch called “the good life,” in which there is  “endless novelty, change and excitement [and] the titillation of the senses by available stimulant.” (Check Melissa’s Facebook photos.) Exotic images of luxury, romance and affluence dominate the media that engulfs, not just them but all of us. This is modern consumerism and, whether we like it or not, we are part of it.

Michaella and Melissa are indistinguishable from the thousands who congregated at Leicester Square. They’re products of the same culture, one that emphasizes impulse rather than calculation as the determinant of human conduct. They’ve all learned to spurn traditional values of thrift and self-denial and respond to every new demand our media issues. But young people are not hapless fools. Anything but: they know there is a manipulation going on. When they see the latest smartphone dangled in front of them, they tumble to what’s going on. Use values have been replaced by exchange values, events by images and quality by newness.

Obviously, I can’t know the exact motivation of the young women now awaiting their fate in South America. But I’m pretty sure their ill-starred adventure had its source in the desire to find an alternative to the unendurable settled life they saw lying ahead of them at home. They were prepared to travel thousands of miles to escape their humdrum existences. Their restless ambition and nagging dissatisfaction with things as they were encouraged by an appetite for excitement, glamour and celebrity. In this sense they are connected as if by an invisible chain to the thousands of worshipful young fans of 1D.

Diana’s death fascinates us as much as her life

Princess Diana

Sixteen years after her death, Diana, Princess of Wales, continues to enchant us. A new claim that the Special Air Service (SAS) was involved in her death is being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. In the immediate aftermath of the fateful night of August 31, 1997, everyone struggled to make sense of arguably the most devastating death of the century. The shock and prolonged sense of grief occasioned by Diana’s utterly unexpected death has scarcely a parallel in world events. The deaths of social and political giants such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and cultural icons like John Lennon and Michael Jackson, stunned people the world over. But none of these evoked an emotional response so long and deep as that following Diana’s death.

The response to Diana’s death defined an emblematic moment, one of transferred emotion. In the days leading to her funeral on September 6, over a million people flocked to pay their last respects, many leaving bouquets at her London home at Kensington Palace. Her funeral attracted three million mourners who cast flowers along the entire length of the journey. A global television audience of twenty six million watched the day’s events.

The near-inevitable conspiracy theories surrounding the death were like those about the moon landing, the JFK assassination or 9/11. More rational attributions of blame centered on paparazzi, who pursued her into the tunnel in Paris on that fateful night. “I always believed the press would kill her in the end,” said Diana’s brother, the Earl of Spencer. “Every proprietor and editor of every publication that has paid for intrusive and exploitative photographs of her, encouraging greedy and ruthless individuals to risk everything in pursuit of Diana’s image, has blood on his hands.”

Few wanted to extend that same argument further. If they had, they would have concluded that the paparazzi were motivated by money offered by media corporations that could sell publications in their millions to consumers whose thirst for pictures and stories of Diana seemed unquenchable. In the event, the photographers were cleared of any wrongdoing by a French court in 1999. The fact remains: all parties, from the paparazzi to the fans were connected as if by invisible thread.

Anyone who was aware of Diana — and it’s difficult to imagine anyone who wasn’t — was forced to think about the way in which news values had been subverted by entertainment values. After all, Diana’s greatest triumph was not so much in ushering in world peace, or saving the planet, but in offering so pleasure to so many people. Yet the inspection was momentary. It didn’t bring to an end the gathering interest in figures, who, like Diana, offered pleasure while presenting absolutely nothing that would materially alter their lives or the lives of any other living thing. Then, after a spell of critical evaluation of the media, the interest resumed and theories of skullduggery, connivance and subterfuge began to circulate. It took ten years before an official investigation lasting nearly two years concluded the death had been an accident and there was “no conspiracy to murder the occupants of that car.

Now police are investigating a fresh claim that the SAS was involved in Diana’s death. Like the other theories, this one appears to lack that all-important constituent of a credible theory – evidence. So you might wonder why the latest one has prompted action from Scotland Yard. “The Metropolitan Police Service is scoping information that has recently received,” is the official response. “Scoping” is an unusual choice of verbs: it’s typically used informally for looking at, or scanning something or someone. But the meaning is clear enough: the Yard is taking this seriously enough to look into it.

A few people will suggest a different kind of conspiracy: a new film Diana is shortly to be released to coincide with the anniversary of the Princess’s death. A new theory is bound to be good boxoffice. But it could be just an astonishing coincidence. I suspect this will not be the last theory of this kind we will hear. Diana’s death, like her life, is a subject of endless intrigue. Her singular capacity to lure, charm and draw people of diverse backgrounds has survived her and will probably outlive anyone reading this.

 

The most eagerly awaited birth in history

new-royal-baby-CarmenRodriguez-NaturalHealthStoreUS

“I wonder if one of the midwives will tweet news of the baby before the official announcement on the easel.” My friend, a professional broadcaster, was wondering out loud. Naively, I hadn’t considered the possibility. “You mean subvert the monarchical protocol?” I asked. It would have meant that potentially a half-billion people would have known the sex of the baby before the official announcement. “The tweeter would’ve ended up in the Tower at one time in history.”

Of course, it didn’t happen, but I’ll bet a few anxious people at the Palace were keeping their fingers crossed while the couriers made their way from St Mary’s to the Palace, where the royal easel stands.

This has been the most eagerly awaited birth in history. I can remember 1982 when Princess Diana gave birth to William and, while I can’t remember the anticipation over the birth of Lady Caroline of Monaco in 1958, I understand this too was an international event. But both births were before social media revolutionized the way we communicate – and think.

There has never been a mediated birth on this scale. By mediated, I mean involving intermediate agencies. The traditional press and broadcast media were geared up for William’s birth. But by current standards, they were restrained, if not cautious. Today’s media are less likely to observe procedure, and, as last year’s Leveson Inquiry shows, prepared to go to any lengths, legal or illegal, for a story.

Today’s media are constituent parts of celebrity culture. And, whether she likes it or not, so is the Duchess of Cambridge. The nearest recent contenders in eagerly-awaited-births are Beyoncé’s Blue Ivy and Kim Kardashian’s North; though neither generated the global interest of the new heir to the throne.

Kate, like Diana, is a knowable figure. She has a similar regal aura, but she combines this with ordinariness. People seem to love her, but not in a worshipful way. It’s almost as if they feel they could stand next to her at the Tesco checkout and strike up a conversation: “What did you make of last night’s X Factor?”

In a way, all the royals are more human nowadays. Before Diana, they were remote, inaccessible, godlike creatures. Diana humanized royals: she gave royalty a human character (there’s a biopic due for release later this year, by the way). When she arrived in the public consciousness, celebrity culture was in its infancy. The spread of celebrities means that we are no longer in awe at prominent figures from politics, entertainment and sport: we know they are just like us, with the same kind of weaknesses, imperfections and inadequacies. We know the royals are not exquisitely, sublimely flawless. And we like them all the more for it. We feel a peculiar kind of intimacy with Kate and her new baby. Most of us will never stand within ten miles of either of them. There’s no irony in that: familiarity and distance are no longer related.

Not so dumb

Jib Fowles, an emeritus professor of communication from University of Houston in Texas, has spent his professional life researching the effects of advertising. His work is brilliantly counter-intuitive. For example, in response to the question how well do television commercials work? Fowles writes: “The answer is both not very and quite a bit, depending on how the situation is perceived.” Fowles rounds up evidence to conclude: “Not only don’t commercials make an impression on us, but as strange as it may seem, no experimental evidence exists that they get us to buy anything.”

Strange indeed; especially as companies like Unilever and General Motors regularly spend 10-12 percent of their annual sales receipts on the following year’s per advertising, with about 40 per cent on tv commercials. The size of the audience is, as Fowles puts it, the key: “All but about 10% of the money spent on television commercials is wasted.” Only that percentage of tv viewers retains product knowledge after watching an ad. Even then, only ten percent of that sub-group might actually go out and buy the product. But that percentage is from a total population of millions.

I wonder what Fowles would make of an ad currently playing on Australian television. The commercial isn’t trying to persuade us to buy anything, but simply to be careful. It’s part of a public safety campaign sponsored by Melbourne’s Metro Trains and it takes the form of a cartoon in which a blobby, androgynous character performs heroically suicidal acts to the background of a song that provides helpful suggestions on “Dumb ways to die.” Like:  Sell both your kidneys on the internet … eat a tube of Superglue … dress up like a moose during hunting season.

As I’m writing, the commercial has 52,086,475 views on YouTube. It’s ingeniously original, engagingly witty and, unlike other ads, implores consumers not to behave in the way it wants. You can’t imagine too many product manufacturers being so intrepid as to advise viewers not to buy its wares for over two minutes.

We tend to look at advertisements as works of art and evaluate their creativity, innovative freshness, and aesthetic appeal. But advertisers are interested in only one thing: do they change consumers’ behavior in the way they want? The Aussie ad wants people to behave with more caution and avoid dying – in a dumb way. I wonder what Fowles makes of it. I’ll write to him and let you know what he says.