Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Blurring reality with this cruel circus

In the US, people have been bombarded in recent weeks with stories about the mother of octuplets – the so-called ‘Octomom’ – a single (and by the sound of it, rather troubled) young woman who conceived after IVF treatment, while already mother to six more children by the same method.

In the UK, if we want a reality TV soap opera, we’ve had the strange case of Jade Goody for the last couple of months. And it shows no signs of going away just yet.

For those of you who don’t know, Goody rose to national attention in 2002, when she was a contestant on Big Brother. She became infamous for her apparent stupidity and was vilified by the tabloid press, which described her, amongst other things, as: “A slapper with a face like a pig” and “the most hated woman in Britain”.

But it was the start of a career as a celebrity that saw her launch a beauty salon (not very successfully), a perfume, an exercise DVD and goodness knows what else. She was barely out of the tabloids and gossip rags before an appearance on Celebrity Big Brother in 2007 brought her downfall, when she was accused of bullying and using racist abuse to fellow contestant, Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty.

Following eviction from that show and countless apologies, she eventually cropped up on Big Boss, the Indian version of the reality show, in summer 2008. And it was during that that she was told that she had cervical cancer.

Treatment was too late though. And earlier this year, it was announced that the cancer had spread and she was dying.

Cue a new media circus, with her wedding to boyfriend Jack Tweed (a convicted criminal who is due to be sentenced for yet another assault) attracting wide media coverage – and money.

She stayed in the public eye as long as possible and sold the rights to everything she could, with the stated aim of raising money for her two young sons. But at 27 years of age, on 22 March (Mother’s Day), she died. The timing was quite good, since it stopped Ok! magazine’s ‘memorial issue’ appearing quite as presumptive as it had.

Her funeral followed just last Saturday, with the intervening period providing time for the tabloids – those same publications that had once vilified her – now holding her up as some form of secular saint; a Princess Di for the plebs.

Just yesterday, veteran TV presenter Sir Michael Parkinson dared to lambast the entire circus. But today, self-appointed bishop of his own church, Jonathan Blake, got all upset because Parky had spoken out.

The point is not that it’s not tragic that a young woman has died and that two young boys are now without their mother. Of course it is. The point is not that the cause of her death has sent many women to get smear tests – yes, some good has come out of it.

The question is, what does the entire thing say about modern Britain? It seems to raise a number of issues:
  • that the tabloids (the overwhelming majority of which are right wing) could so vilify someone in their pages, without any comeback – and so many people continue to read these rags;

  • that the same people could later raise up Goody as some sort of saint ‘people’s saint’ – and sell even more papers;

  • that we have a culture of mass hysteria (really seen after the death of Diana) whereby people who had never known her went to the funeral, laid flowers outside her home etc etc – and spent money buying souvenir editions of the rags mentioned above);

  • that we have a culture where people can become – and aspire to become – a celebrity, even though they have absolutely no talent;
  • that on the one hand we have a whole sub-culture where stupidity and a lack of education is considered something to be proud of, and on the other, people who are not particularly intelligent or educated are turned into freak shows for the public to vent their spleens on and feel superior over (shows such as Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle are similar);

  • that we seem to have developed (or perhaps redeveloped) a culture of cruelty – not just visible in situations like this, and the daytime shows mention in the last point, but also in a great deal of comedy today;

  • that the exploitation of Goody was simply one of those extreme examples of how many people are exploited by elements in the media in order to sell more of their rags (the case of Max Mosely last year was the same).

  • that we seem to have a reached a point whereby, if you criticise the whole mawkish, tasteless affair, it is taken by some people to be offensive and even insulting to Goody herself or disrespectful of her. Offence is increasingly becoming a way to deflect or even stop criticism of any number of things.

  • I don’t know whether it’s better or worse in the UK than elsewhere, but it’s the sort of situation that leaves me close to despair sometimes.

    And what does make it worse here is that we have no real intelligentsia to help inform public discourse on this or any other subject – primarily because we, as a nation, distrust intellectualism and intellectuals so much.

    As I said, the circus hasn’t stopped. On Monday, the Sun – one of the gutter-scraping rags in the forefront of this voyeuristic farce – had as its front page headline something along the lines of: ‘Let her rest in peace’. Below was a strap advertising 12 pages of coverage of the funeral. Some peace.

    It’s probably only a matter of time until the Daily Mail offers readers the chance to collect tokens for a Jade Goody memorial rose bush or a Jade Goody commemorative porcelain plate (or is that only for Diana or the Queen Mum?).

    A decade or so ago, you could avoid it. But now, with 24/7 TV and news coverage, with free rags handed out to commuters every night in London and other cities, filled with nothing but gossip and other crap, with whole newsagents’ shelves filled by gossip and scandal sheets, it’s more difficult. It creeps into more and more peoples lives, whether they want it or not.

    But it’s easy to slag off the media (and as a media worker myself, I’m more than capable of highlighting the worst excesses of my trade). But is it really just the media to blame – or the people who buy into all this? If people stopped buying such stuff, they’d stop publishing it. Yet that commemorative edition of Ok! apparently sold many, many more copies than it usually does. Classic chicken and egg.

    I don’t know how one cannot but feel for Goody (and others like her – and there are many). They’re the victims of a new kind of freak show or the visit to Bedlam to gawp at the mentally ill. Nothing, but nothing is achieved by raising up – or knocking down – people like her. It is, in part at least, a chance for some in the media to savage the working class – particularly the lumpen proletariat (or 'chavs' as they're colloquially known in the UK these days) and then to indulge in mawkish, sentimental twaddle about them.

    Is it the new “opiate of the people”? Does it matter? Well, I think it does. I have no great solutions to offer right now, but it does need to be raised from this perspective and discussed.

    And Parky managed, for once, to make a touch of Yorkshire ‘plain speaking’ most welcome.

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