Tag Archives: privacy

PRIVACY? THAT’S SO 20th CENTURY!

Q: I want to start by asking you about your relationship with your mother. I believe you had a somewhat troubled childhood and that there was tension between …

A: Hang on! This is a bit personal, isn’t it? What are we doing here?

Q: Those were Robert Downey Jr’s very words just before he walked out on Channel 4’s interviewer Krishnan Guru-Murthy the other day (interview is above).

A: Oh, I’m with you now: Downey thought he was just appearing to promote his new movie  Avengers: Age of Ultron (below) and he got upset when Guru-Murthy pressed him on more personal issues, including his past use of drugs and alcohol. In fact, he got so upset, he just pulled a face, said “goodbye,” yanked off his microphone and walked out, mumbling, “it was getting a bit Diane Sawyer” — a reference to the American interviewer who tends to probe into private lives.

Q: So has Downey any right to restrict his interview to promoting his new film and refusing to talk about his private life?

A: In my opinion, anyone who is either an A-list celebrity — as Downey clearly is — or has aspirations to becoming a celeb of some distinction has to come to terms early on with the fact that they have no private life that they can keep offlimits: everything in their past and present is fair game, not just for the traditional media, but for everyone. Social media, twitter in particular, has pretty much made privacy redundant. But even before twitter started (it launched in 2006), celebrities had entered into a new kind of arrangement in which they agreed to cough up any details of their lives the media wanted to know about. And, of course, the media are our proxy: they probe because we consumers want them to probe.

Q: When did all this start then? Because I can’t imagine the Hollywood stars of the 1950s or even 1960s surrendered their right to a private life. In fact, my reading of the old stars is that the film industry kept a very tight control over the information they released to the media. What changed?

A: After the rise of Madonna in the 1980s, anyone who aspired to be famous had to stay mindful of the sacrifice she made. She may not have slaughtered an animal or child as an offering to god, but she gave up something that had been regarded as important to previous entertainers: her privacy. Had social media been around, she would have had no choice. But in the days when traditional media were dominant, she opted to start a process that would eventually turn privacy inside out. Eventually, fans, instead of relying on what the media provided, asserted themselves. But they needed assistance. Consumers have no need to depend on traditional media for information on celebrities’ lives now: they can access it for themselves; and, if they can’t do that, they will make it up. Either way, it satisfies the voyeuristic impulse.

Q: Voyeuristic impulse? You mean we take pleasure from watching other people? Are you saying that we are all voyeurs nowadays?

A: Actually voyeurism doesn’t quite catch it: it sounds too one-directional, as if one group is peeping at another through a keyhole; celebrities supply raw material to eager followers. Madonna certainly delivered a product in the 1980s, but she was forced to change. The relationship between celebrities and fans became progressively more fluid, involving a collaboration and exchange of ideas between celeb and audience (reaching an unedifying point in 2012 when Justin Bieber’s fans elected via twitter to name his penis “Jerry”). It’s difficult to imagine unapproachable, unreachable, untouchable stars, such as Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and their contemporaries in the 1950s and 1960s, tweeting. But, if they were around in times of 360 degrees connectivity, they would be obliged to do exactly that (though probably not sharing nomenclature of genitalia).

Q: I guess twitter and Instagram have changed the way we understand privacy completely then.

A: Yes, it’s a kind of two-way situation: we follow others’ lives, but we don’t mind sharing our own. The kind of material people put on the two sites you mention would have made people shrink in embarrassment twenty years ago. But think about how relaxed everyone is about sharing what used to be called private information today. The Jerry Springer Show is one of the most important shows in television history: it really captured the zeitgeist when it debuted in 1991. Audiences could hardly believe they were watching and listening to people air their dirty linen in public, and, of course, the public was in millions. It was, in many ways, an incredible   show and paved the way for so many others, including our own Jeremy Kyle Show. We’ve become so used to eavesdropping on other people’s lives that we feel no guilt. We even discuss others’ behaviour in a way that turns us into judges. I mean that quite literally, we make moral evaluations about how other people live. That’s what I mean by the voyeuristic impulse.

Q: So I come back to my initial question. Downey: right or wrong?

A: Ah, I see you want me to make my own moral evaluation on him. Well, I think he has become such an interesting guy because of his checkered background. It looked for a while as if he would be cast out into the wilderness. In the 1990s, he was in and out of rehab and jail for drugs issues. At earlier periods in the twentieth century, this would have been ruinous for an actor, but when Downey got into trouble, audiences were not simply interested on what they saw on the screen, so his various travails made him a fascinating character. He got a part on the tv show Ally McBeal and was so good that he got big movie parts. Presumably, he’s aware that his troubled background has in a perverse way contributed to his success, but just wants to put it all behind him now. It’s understandable, though it suggests he may not quite understand that every time he’s giving an interview audiences are not just interested in his roles in Iron Man or Avengers: they’re actually more interested in Robert Downey Jr.

Harry Styles’ deal with the devil

IS HE RENEGING ON A FAUSTIAN BARGAIN?

harry styles, where have you come from. amazing

Q: So what’s all this about Harry Styles? He’s taken out an injunction. What’s that?

A: An injunction is a court order or warning, restraining people from continuing an action that threatens the legal right of another. Harry says photographers follow him and invade his personal space.

Q: Which is?

A: 50 metres. So now photographers can’t stake out or loiter within distance of him.

Q: He’s not the first celebrity to do this, is he?

A: No. There have been several. Cheryl Cole won a similar high court order last year after complaining about the “intense and very annoying” experience of photographers camping outside her home. Lily Allen too. And the late Amy Winehouse. In 2008, when Britney Spears was taken to hospital, the ambulance needed at least 12 police motorcycles to escort it through a swarm of photographers.

Q: So you can understand why they get annoyed.

A: You can. But it’s like a professor getting annoyed by persistent students who are always asking questions, calling him at home and constantly asking for reviews of drafts. The students might be a bit annoying, but without them the professor would be sunk.

Q: You’re not serious. That’s a ridiculous comparison.

A: Follow my logic. Without students, a professor has no one to educate, no one to read his or her books and articles, no one who is interested in learning, no one to lecture. So the prof might get the occasional student who calls at inconvenient times or bombards him or her with drafts of essays. But that goes with the job. It’s not 9 till 5. Celebs need exposure: they become famous because the media, especially the paps, give them phenomenal publicity. Someone like Harry has been elevated to stardom courtesy of television (he shot to fame with One Direction on The X Factor) and has been in the public eye ever since. His band’s records sell in their millions and their concerts sell out. But can you imagine what would happen if the global media decided to ignore them?

Q: All their fans, the “Directioners” would kick up a fuss and … well, I’m not sure what would happen after that. What?

A: We’d all forget about them, stop buying records and all the other merchandise. Television shows would lose interest and stop booking them. And twitter traffic would eventually slow down. The band would still make a living, but, without the kind of media attention 1D now enjoys, it would be headed for oblivion.

Q: You say, “enjoys” but clearly the band, or at least Harry, isn’t enjoying all the attention, is he?

A: Apparently, not. Though the phrase “goes with the territory” should mean something to him. The band has shot to global fame in a relatively short period of time. They appeared in the 2010 X Factor. Harry is still only 19, remember. The band finished in third place behind Rebecca Ferguson, and winner Matt Cardle, neither of whom has made nearly as much impact as 1D. Imagine if they commanded the same kind of attention as Aiden Grimshaw or Katie Waissel, both of whom were in show’s finals, but never registered with the media. I think that when people go on a show like The X Factor, they strike a kind of Faustian bargain: they trade in their right to a private life in exchange for a shot at fame, riches and A-list status. In 1D’s case, the deal came off and the boy band got what it wanted. But Harry seems to want to renege on the deal.

Q: A bit harsh, isn’t it?

A: It sounds it, but surely anyone who contemplates fame – and a great many people, young and old, do – must know that being followed by paps is part of the definition. Being a celeb means that the media are going to chronicle your every move and convey this to consumers. If they lose interest, then chances are fans have either already lost interest or soon will. That’s just the nature of celebrity culture nowadays.

Q: So what will happen?

A: Either this is an astute career move for Harry and he is intent of becoming the most prominent member of the band. He probably already is. Or he could scare off the paps and they will just ignore him. I think the former is more likely. Interest in the band is inevitably limited by time. In a couple of years, fans will move on: look at JLS. But my suspicion is that Harry will try eventually to establish himself independently of the band. @elliscashmore

 

Our parasocial affair with Nigella

WE THOUGHT WE KNEW HER, BUT WE KNEW NOTHING

Nigella Lawson

Why do we know so much yet so little about Nigella Lawson (above), the domestic goddess who brought sensual pleasure to the mundane domestic chore of cooking? It seems only yesterday, she was a regular in our homes. Now, we’re not so sure know her at all. We thought we knew her. But it seems we didn’t know the first thing about her. While neither she nor her ex-husband Charles Saatchi is in the dock, for the past few days, they have been the centre of attention: she and her marriage have been opened up for public inspection. Nigella’s court case, which started last month, is actually the trial of the celebrity couple’s two personal assistants, Italian sisters Elisabetta and Francesca Grillo, who worked as Nigella’s and her husband’s personal assistants. The Grillos are accused of fraudulently using the credit cards of Saatchi’s private company. But they have barely been considered: all attention is on Nigella. Every day, it seems we have learned something new about her private life that has systematically disabused us of any fanciful notion we knew the first thing about her. It started last June with the release of a picture of her being, it seemed, throttled by Saatchi. Since then, her relationship with Saatchi has been methodically cut up and its internal parts displayed.

Celebrity relationships have been dissected publicly before, of course; usually as they happen. Brangelina and Bennifer were narratives the media asked us to share. But the analysis of Nigella’s multi-dysfunctional relationship — Nigella characterized it as “intimate terrorism” — is particularly enlightening: it’s taught how little we really know about people with whom we feel close. This is a condition of today: we assume we know people from the two-dimensional images we see of them. Let me explain how this happened.

During the second half of the twentieth century, television transformed the way we thought and behaved. It affected the way we relaxed, the way we learned, the way we communicated. The complete cultural landscape was transfigured by television, to the point where we can’t recognize its presence. So much of what we know about the world is gleaned from tv that we find it tough to think where else we find out about some event or other. The internet has, of course, emerged as an alternative. It barely needs stating that Nigella or the celebrity culture she inhabits wouldn’t have been possible without television. Prior to its acceptance as a domestic appliance in the 1950s, we knew about prominent figures mainly by their names or artist’s impressions, still photographs or newsreels shown at the movies. “Television, bringing famous faces and sounds into our homes, has created different kinds of celebrity,” writes the social psychologist David Giles in his book Illusions of Immortality.

Television brought with it intimacy: we were able to see moving images and hear voices — in our own homes. It also brought replication: those images and sounds were not just one-offs: they could be repeated time and again, exposing us to the famous in a way that stirred us to new interest. We saw people that were previously remote and perhaps unknowable as ordinary humans with the same kinds of mannerisms, faults and maybe foibles as the rest of us. Giles argues that the proliferation of media, specifically television, in the late twentieth century expanded the opportunities for people to become famous. In material terms, there were more tv screens on which they could appear and become known. Viewers could not only see and hear a new array of people: they could almost reach out and touch them. In a way, they could almost swear they knew them. The more they felt they knew them, the more they became entranced.

Giles invokes a term from to a 1956 article in the journal Psychiatry to capture the emerging relationship between tv figures and viewers: “parasocial interaction.” The 1950s was the decade of growth for television: at the start, few households had a tv; by the end over 90 percent of household in the USA and 70 percent in the UK had at least one set. Viewers were forming unusual attachments. They were developing “friendships” with television characters, some fictional and others real (like announcers, or weather forecasters). They also “hated” some of them. Familiarity led to a sense of intimacy. Viewers actually thought they knew the figures they saw on their screens. They interacted with them parasocially. The relationships were and still are strictly one-way. It’s called parasocial because para means beyond, as in paranormal. The attachment might only have been as strong as a beam of light from a cathode ray tube. Yet it was experienced as strong and meaningful. Viewers actually felt they knew people they had never met, probably never seen in the flesh and who knew nothing of their existence. So there is no actual interaction (inter means between): it’s oneway. This doesn’t stop viewers feeling like there’s a genuine interaction. In this sense, it’s an interesting term that captures the way we think and feel about people we don’t know and who don’t know us but who sometimes unwittingly and unknowingly move us to act, occasionally in erratic and irrational ways.

Since 1999 when she appeared on our screens in Nigella Bites, the domestic goddess has been in our homes, our kitchens even. This is, I think, the reason why we assumed we knew her so well: seeing celebs on stage, in movie roles or even in the contrived circumstances of reality tv shows is one thing; but seeing them in the kitchen doing nothing more sensational than preparing food, contributes to an especially close parasocial relationship. @elliscashmore

 

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.