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.
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What does it mean for Ukip if it loses in Stoke-on-Trent Central?

The party’s prospects are in question if it fails to win over the “Brexit capital” in Thursday's by-election.

“The Only Way Is Up!” blasted through a hall in Stoke-on-Trent Central on a damp Monday evening earlier this month. It was the end of a public Ukip meeting, in which Nigel Farage and his successor and by-election candidate Paul Nuttall made their rallying cries to an audience of around 650 supporters.

But even then, a fortnight ago, the note of triumph in the dance classic was tinged with uncertainty. “We’ve won the war, but we’ve yet to win the peace,” Farage admitted to the sympathetic crowd. And while this message is supposed to make Ukip’s fight relevant even in the context of Brexit-bound Britain, it betrays the party’s problem: the battle that was its raison d'être is over.

Failing fortunes

Since then, the party has had more to contend with. Its candidate in the Labour seat has been caught lying about having “close personal friends” killed at the Hillsborough disaster. This comes on top of a number of other false claims, and an investigation into whether he falsely registered his home address as being in the constituency.

After these scandals – and a campaign seemingly unable to turn out apathetic voters (which I covered a couple of weeks ago) – Ukip’s chances in the West Midlands seat look worse than expected.

Initially the main challenger to Labour, Ukip is now being predicted for third or even fourth place in the seat, behind a Tory party that essentially stood aside to give Nuttall room, and to focus on a concurrent by-election campaign in Copeland.

It’s in Labour’s interest for the campaign to continue looking like a close Labour-Ukip fight, in order to keep hold of tactical voters. But both the Conservative and Lib Dem campaigns are feeling more buoyant.

“We are relatively confident that Ukip are not going to win, and that is quite a change,” the Lib Dem campaign coordinator Ed Fordham told me. “That has actually relieved lots of voters of the emotional risk of letting in what they perceive to be an unpleasant, far-right option . . . and voting for who they would like to represent them.”

One local activist chirped: “It will hopefully be a terrible result for Ukip.”

So what will it mean for Ukip if it loses?

Great expectations

Ukip has a lot riding on this seat. Farage called the by-election “absolutely fundamental” to Ukip’s future. Its new leader, Nuttall, took the risk of running as the party’s candidate there – riding his reputation on the by-election.

This created a lot of hype about Ukip’s chances, which the party has privately been trying to play down ever since. Even before the scandal surrounding Nuttall, he was emphasising that the seat had only been Ukip’s 72nd target, and told me he had taken a gamble by running for it. “The way it’s being written up as if this is the one – it wasn’t,” he insisted.

But Stoke-on-Trent, where 69 per cent voted Leave, has been labelled the “Brexit capital”. According to political scientist Rob Ford, the author of Revolt on the Right who has been studying Labour’s most Ukip-vulnerable seats: “It should be a pretty favourable seat for them, pretty favourable demographics, pretty favourable [negative] attitudes about the EU, very high Brexit vote there and so on.”

In other words, if Ukip can’t win here, against a weak Labour party, where can it win?

Struggle for seats

Brexit is central to Ukip’s by-election campaign. The party has highlighted Labour’s splits over Europe, pointed out the Labour candidate Gareth Snell’s Remainer credentials, and warned that the government needs to be held to account when negotiating Britain’s exit.

But Ford believes this rhetoric is unlikely to work, since the Tories are already pursuing a “hard” Brexit focused on immigration control. “A difficulty for Paul Nuttall and Ukip is that people are going to say: why would we vote for you when we’re getting what we want from the government? What’s the point right now?” he said. “I can have all the Brexity stuff, all the immigration control stuff, but with none of the incompetence and serial lying about Hillsborough – I think I’ll take that!”

So if rerunning the EU referendum doesn’t work, even in such a Brexit-heavy seat, this means trouble for Ukip elsewhere in the country. A Ukip councillor in a top Ukip target seat with similar demographics to Stoke believes it’s “crisis time” for the party.

“It is very sad to say, but Ukip has lost its way,” they told me. “It’s still a strong party, but after losing Nigel, it’s lost a little of its oomph. The new gentleman [Nuttall] has been silly with the comments he’s made. That’s a big worry in some regards. You need to be a people person. It’s a serious situation at the minute.”

If Ukip can’t prove it can win parliamentary seats – even in favourable by-elections – then it will be difficult to prove its authority as a political party come the general election.

Leadership lament

Should Nuttall lose, Ukip’s leadership will come into question. Again. During a tumultuous time late last year, when the favourite Steven Woolfe left the party after a physical altercation, and Diane James quit the leadership after 18 days, commentators asked if Ukip was anything without Farage.

When Nuttall eventually took over, the same voices warned of his threat to Labour – citing his northern and working-class roots. It’s likely this narrative will change, and Farage’s golden touch pondered again, if Nuttall fails to win.

But rather than panic about its national leader, Ukip must look carefully at those who commit to the party in local campaigns. On the ground in Stoke, running Nuttall as a candidate instead of a local Ukipper is seen as a mistake.

“I don’t know why they did that,” one local activist for an opposing party commented. “If they’d run Mick Harold, they would’ve won. He’s a Stokie.”

Harold, the deputy chair of Staffordshire County Committee, and chair of Ukip’s Stoke-on-Trent Central/North branch, won 22.7 per cent of the vote for Ukip in the constituency in 2015. He insists that he stands by his decision to step aside for Nuttall, but does highlight that Ukip should increase its vote share.

“If we’re increasing our percentage share of the vote, we’re still moving forward and that’s how we’ve got to look at it,” he told me. “I got 22.7 per cent in 2015. I would think this time we’re going to certainly get somewhere around the 30 per cent mark.”

Would it have been more likely to achieve this with Harold as candidate? “Whatever happens, happens, we’ve just got to move forward,” he replied. “If you’ve made a mistake, you move on from it.”

I have heard similar misgivings from local activists in other parts of the country – people who have achieved impressive results in local elections and the general election, but haven’t had much thanks from the national party. “We need to get professionalised now,” one such campaigner said. “Because we’ve got grassroots people who are not career politicians [doing all the hard work].” They say their local party is fed up with leadership being dictated by “personal grudges” at the top of the party.

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As I’ve written before, I don’t think this is the end of Ukip. Once Brexit starts to bite, and it’s clear immigrants are still needed to fill jobs, there will be resentment enough to make space for them again. But losing Stoke will highlight the challenges – of purpose, leadership and local organisation – that the party will need to overcome for its next stand.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.