The rise and rise of the media star

Kilroy-Silk may be the start of a new phenomenon: the television presenter as politician. The two ro

If Britain were ever to have a Silvio Berlusconi, he wouldn't be a media magnate but a media star. Apart from the disparity in income - the stars are rich by ordinary standards, but their wealth does not begin to match the wealth of the magnates - everything else is in their favour. They are populist and popular. The public knows them. They work in businesses where the ideology of the new elite is so ingrained, it is barely contested.

That ideology couldn't be better constructed to achieve success in an age when the old loyalties to political ideals have broken down and deference to authority has been replaced by deference to celebrity. It holds that media stars - television and radio presenters and newspaper pundits - are the tribunes of the people who hold the corrupt to account in the people's name. The fiction is maintained that they have no biases or interests of their own.

What modern media produce is not only the absurdity of rich journalists posing as the champions of the oppressed and deceived; they also produce rich journalists whose success is testimony to the irrelevance of knowledge.

If you think about it for a moment you will realise that it is impossible for star presenters to have the intellectual ability to ask informed questions on every subject from welfare dependency to the war in Iraq. They have to rely on briefs cobbled together by their researchers, which cannot compensate for the interviewers' lack of first-hand experience of, or inquiries about, all the subjects on the schedule. When they had to ask reasonably polite questions, the ignorance did not matter greatly. Now they present themselves as grand inquisitors with the knowledge to tear through the arguments of each and every interviewee. In reality, there are many occasions when they do not and cannot know what they are talking about.

The great insight of modern media managers is that the audience prefers it that way. No one has turned off a Today programme interview with the secretary of state for health and cried, "Bloody John Humphrys knows nothing about the NHS! Why didn't the BBC put on its health correspondent?"

The reason it didn't is that the BBC special- ist would not be a celebrity. It is the media star that the listeners want to hear and the viewers to see. He's the man they know (or think they know); he's the man who has shown in thousands of interviews that he is on their side; he's the man who seems like "one of us" when he puts his half-angry, half-understood questions, rather than a snotty expert lacking in empathy.

Fighting a media star is all but impossible. As everyone in public life knows, you always lose because the media control how your attack will be reported. The BBC broke every rule in the slim guide to journalistic ethics during the David Kelly affair, including the one moral imperative that all journalists are meant to die in the last ditch defending: never betray a confidential source. Yet if there are licence fee-payers out there who understand that the stitching up of Kelly by Andrew Gilligan had as much, if not more, to do with Kelly's suicide than the tricks new Labour was playing, I have yet to meet them.

An unintentionally revealing Robert Kilroy-Silk explained the rules of the game to Lynn Barber of the Observer. For years, he had laid into "parasitic" asylum-seekers and the European Union in his column. The veneer of impartiality with which he dealt with these subjects on his show was so thin a gnat could pierce it. The BBC wasn't bothered until a rather confected fuss about an attack he had made on Arabs swelled up, and its managers decided to sack him. For a week or so, a disorientated corporation was on the receiving end of the outrage its stars usually incite against others. Kilroy-Silk explained the anger by saying, "All those people, all those nice people - my mum, your mum, my aunts, all the people I've been meeting for the last two weeks or so: good, decent people - have been disenfranchised by the BBC."

And who can doubt that there were "good, decent people" who saw Kilroy as the man who spoke for them, with more authority than the MPs they actually elected - if, that is, they bothered to vote. Kilroy-Silk certainly had no difficulty seeing himself as the champion of the decent majority, more deserving of respect than a mere elected politician.

When he met Barber, Kilroy-Silk was no one's elected representative. But for years his signature lines had been the old standards of the populist political repertory: "Has the world gone mad? The establishment's got its knickers in a twist again. Who does Tony Blair think he is? Who do they think they are? [And, but of course] This is political correctness gone mad!" When politicians try these lines today, however, they are slapped down by the media stars who remind them, forcibly, that they are not "one of us" - the star and his audience - but out-of-touch elitists whose lies and manipulations the star exposes on "our" behalf.

Now Kilroy-Silk is a member of the European Parliament. The other new UK Independence Party MEPs have him to thank in part for their success. His media career has made him their prime asset and de facto leader. It is Kilroy-Silk rather than, say, Richard Desmond, owner of the Express Group - which ran Kilroy-Silk's column - who has turned media populism into political success. At first glance Desmond seems far better qualified for the role of the poor man's Berlusconi. He has much greater formal power than Kilroy-Silk. His fortune is far larger and he can control every word that appears in three national newspapers - the Express, the Sunday Express and the Star. His views on Europe, asylum-seekers and the scrounging poor are just as extreme as Kilroy-Silk's and more extreme than Berlusconi's.

That he is a foul-mouthed pornographer stands against him, but more important is his invisibility. How many people would recognise him, know him and feel "disenfranchised" if he were to be sacked? Scarcely anyone, I would guess. The same is true of the other press barons: a media magnate would have to use his papers and stations to promote himself before he could think of a populist political career. The last to try was Robert Maxwell, and he ended up sleeping with the fishes.

If Kilroy-Silk hadn't done it, another star, perhaps Richard Littlejohn of Sky and the Sun, would have done, although his failure to come over well on television may have held him back. What is indisputable is that there will be plenty more where Kilroy-Silk came from, and there is no escape from a stupid future. The logic of technology demands it because of the insecurities it breeds.

Although the news and entertainment conglomerates swamp political and all other cultures, their dominance disguises their weakness. Newspapers are in a slow but inescapable decline (the readership of the nationals dropped by one-fifth between 1990 and 2002). Television and radio are driving out the written word, but the managers of individual stations are riddled with uncertainty because the new digital, internet and satellite technologies fragment the audience and threaten in the long run to make the very idea of a television channel obsolete. Broadcasters are therefore as desperate to maintain market share as newspaper editors - and are as willing to turn journalists into celebrities and straight news into populist ranting. I have seen good men and women go into all branches of journalism for admirable reasons and become corrupted as the inevitability of grabbing market share at any cost takes hold of them.

The ubiquity phenomenon has meant that the most extraordinary aspect of Kilroy-Silk's move to Ukip has barely been mentioned. On most days, the Kilroy show was a BBC current affairs programme. Now its impartial presenter has gone off to join an extreme right-wing group whose membership merges into the membership of the British National Party. Yet neither the viewers of Kilroy nor the BBC managers who allowed him on air for more than a decade were shocked.

How could they be? It was clear to anyone who watched or read him what Kilroy-Silk believed, and the old notion of the impartial broadcaster was dying if not dead. With Kilroy-Silk gone, other presenters must be found who can shout loudly enough to attract and hold the attention of the fickle audience. Not only on daytime TV but on evening, late-night and early-morning television.

If Britain were to get a Silvio Berlusconi, it wouldn't be some Murdoch at the centre of a web of global interests, but a tanned face as recognisable as a member of the family's, who had been in your home countless times and would promise to make the elite who subjugate and frustrate you cringe with an immeasurably phoney bellow of "Who do they think they are?".

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