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.
Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.