Thursday, May 08, 2008

I'm A Celebrity. Get Me In Anywhere!

Whether or not Karl Marx was right when he said religion was ‘the opium of the people,’ the phrase is well past its sell by date. Today, it seems to be celebrities who divert us from the harsh realities of life; celebrities by whom many benchmark their own behaviour, their status, their wealth, and their hope for the future. Even serious hard news journalists now clamour for celebrity interviews, meaning those of us who do not specialise in celebrity PR can get more than a little frustrated; the more time and space the media gives to celebrity gossip, the more our less well-known clients are likely to get left out in the cold – however engaging their stories.

It never ceases to amaze me how celebrities can get ridiculous amounts of coverage for saying absolutely nothing of any interest whatsoever on subjects they know the sum total of nothing about. Yet media bosses lap it up – even those who you might think should know better.

“If Madonna wanted to come on the show we’d definitely oblige because she’s a fascinating person at any time,” Barney Jones, editor of BBC1’s politics show, Sunday AM, told PR Week a few months back.

And they say the BBC isn’t dumbing down? In which case Barney Jones must be suffering from that now-recognised psychological disorder of ‘Celebrity Worship Syndrome.’ Maybe that is why the current series of Sunday AM now bears the more showbiz-friendly and glitzy title of ‘The Andrew Marr Show.’ Little hint of political debate in that title.

This personality cult is also bad news for good journalists, including those specialising in religion. Expert broadcasters who have worked for radio and TV channels for years are regularly replaced or overlooked for presentation work in favour of Johnny-come-lately stars lacking the slightest expertise and even less interest in developing any. Experienced but little-known narrators with beautiful, authoritative voices are shunned for the recognisable voices of the already famous, even those who sound pretty horrible. Quality falls at the first fence, closely followed by authority.

Working on the ‘if you can’t beat them, then join them’ principle, many PRs seek celebrity support to publicise their clients’ work. Not that this guarantees results, let alone those that might be desired.

Last year, when superstar singer Lulu kindly launched The Mildmay Mission hospital’s charity eBay auction, we were in raptures when key interviews were fixed for her on BBC Breakfast and ITV’s This Morning. Sadly, interviewers were clearly far more interested in talking about her previous relationship with the recently deceased George Best than they were in Mildmay’s pioneering and vitally important work.

If you can’t find celebrity backing, you have to resort to pulling a stunt. Author Isabel Losada discovered this almost immediately when she began trying to raise awareness of the plight of the 11th Panchen Lama, detained by the Tibetan authorities since the age of six and not seen since. A story worthy of international media attention in its own right, you might think, she explains in her funny and engaging book, A Beginner’s Guide to Changing the World, how she only actually managed to get the media interested by arranging a parachute jump off Nelson’s column. The press turned up in droves but again, the real issue got far too short a mention.

With celebrity obsession all around, it is no wonder that ‘to be famous’ is seen as a legitimate career choice for many. While most celebrities have enormous talent and deserve their renown, others tick the ‘no talent required’ box and are quite happy to be talked about for all the ‘wrong’ reasons to get their break. Few may be as deluded and dangerous as the 1978 serial killer who wrote to Wisconsin police asking how many more people he had to kill before the press took notice, but how mentally well-adjusted are those talentless wannabees who humiliate themselves on The X Factor, refusing to believe they do not have what it takes? And what about participants in the ‘human bear-baiting’ Jeremy Kyle has been accused of? They confront cheating partners, abusive parents and addicted children in front of millions, ostensibly to find resolution, but isn’t what they really want to be noticed and rescued from obscurity?

Up to a point, the world of religion is just as obsequious to celebrity as any other and the media fetes its own religious heroes and villains. A visiting stranger to these shores reading a national newspaper could be forgiven for thinking there were only two religions in Britain: violent Islamism and the Church of England. While the press picks up regularly on conflict in the Anglican Communion and most of what is said by spiritual A-listers the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, press officers for other church groups tell me they feel sidelined because priority is given to the C of E, while other faith groups have good reason to believe their concerns are overshadowed by Islamic issues.

Occasionally though, moments of heartening lucidity dance around this celebrity silliness. When an ordinary girl was passed off as a pop star in series 4 of Celebrity Big Brother and The Sun ran the headline: “Nobody Wins Big Brother” it was as if we had all woken up to the truth for a moment - before nodding gently back to sleep.

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