The Savile case shows what happens when a celebrity becomes untouchable

An unhealthy type of Faustian pact has developed between the media and the celebrity class.

The scandal over the sex abuse committed by Jimmy Savile over four decades raises a number of questions about the relationship between the world of celebrity and the media. Once individuals achieve celebrity status, they become worshipped like idols. Whether that celebrity comes in the world of show business or sport, these people become like Gods. Then they can, as Savile proved, become virtually untouchable. 

Many really are not very nice people in the first place. When the adulation of becoming a celebrity in the public eye comes about it really does go to their heads.

Footballers provide a good example. Many come from very humble backgrounds, then suddenly they are elevated to being paid tens of thousands of pounds a week. The fans adore them and they become mini-Gods. There are a lot of girls on the look out to “bag a footballer” while many lads like to be seen in their company. The cocaine and drink-fuelled parties have been well known behind the scene for years but only recently have some of the more unsavoury incidents come to the fore.

Pop stars also become built up to a level of adulation from the general public. Whilst not excusing the activities since revealed, there have always been fans hanging around pop singers like Gary Glitter and the whole business of the industry, including the disc jockeys, that surround them. As with the footballers, there is not a lot that some fans will not do to “get in” with them. The possibility to indulge in any sort of sordid sexual activity is thereby open to these characters once they have reached that position of power.

The media plays a crucial role in all of this, building up the celebrities and later tearing them down. Indeed, the demolition element has come more to the fore over recent years. This has not always been the case. Going back to the 1960s, certain things were off limits for the media. The colourful sex life of President John F Kennedy was well known about but was kept hidden from the public. As a result, the first film star style president was able to continue to portray his wholesome family man image in public whilst being anything but behind the scenes.

The media’s role in the making of celebrities has now moved onto new levels with the advent of shows like Big Brother, where individuals with absolutely no talent whatever can become celebrities simply because of that desire to be famous. So an individual like the late Jade Goody could become a celebrity due to her very ordinariness.

The media of course play a major role in both the making and breaking of celebrities. The main motivating force being that celebrities have become big business. Huge numbers of people buy papers and magazines simply to find out what the celebrity class are up to. There is big money in it.

On the way up the wannabe celeb will do anything necessary to court the right type of publicity. Once established, the power is with the celeb who can grant or deny access dependent on what a publication is prepared to do for them. Exclusives and preferential treatment become the bargaining chips that buy many a celeb journalist's silence to more unsavoury goings on behind the scenes.

The problem, of course, comes when having created a monster in the form of a celebrity, how then do they get brought down? As the Savile case proves, they can become practically untouchable. The money that comes with celebrity buys expensive lawyers and PRs. Many of the high profile footballers employ whole teams of advisers that cover up or buy off the victims of their clients excesses. The super injunction has been another useful device deployed to keep hidden indiscretions. Only the relatively unregulated world of Twitter has brought about the demise of this device in some cases.

Where media could be less gullible when it comes to the celebrity class is in the area of charity. Celebrities use charity in a deliberate way to build up a positive PR image. This was seen with Savile, who famously worked at Stoke Mandeville and did many marathons for charity. It raised a vista of good in the public sphere. This so-called "good" can also act as a cover for nefarious behaviour.

Why do all those, for the most part, selfish celebs really give up their time for the likes of Children in Need, Sport Aid and Comic Relief? Are they really doing it for the cause or to help present that wholesome PR profile to the world? Money in the bank, so to speak, when the more unsavoury elements come out later.

An unhealthy type of Faustian pact has developed between the media and the celebrity class over recent years. The media, for the most part,  happy to turn a blind eye to excess in return for exclusives and favourable treatment. The celebrities happy to court the media for positive coverage, then using the courts and other coercive means when exposure of bad behaviour threatens. The line of truth has certainly become blurred in this murky world. The time has certainly come for the media to reassess its relationship with the cult of celebrity. The Savile case provides a timely warning of what can happen when a celebrity becomes untouchable.

 

Jimmy Savile sporting his OBE after his investiture at Buckingham Palace. Photograph: Getty Images.
Paul Donovan writes weekly columns for the Irish Post and Catholic weekly the Universe. He also contributes to the Guardian’s Comment is Free site, Tribune and the Morning Star.
Getty
Show Hide image

What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

0800 7318496