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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Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change