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The Price War

Broadsheet newspapers were partly to blame for the resistible rise of Jordan

To the innocent observer it probably appears as if, over the past ten years, a superbreed of ruthlessly egotistical men and women, usually unsuccessful performers with chaotic personal lives, have somehow taken over our magazines, television stations, radios and public spaces. Who are these awful people and how did they get so much power? In fact, the celebrities we see all over the papers are pawns, entirely expendable. They exist only because the media require their existence.

When I started out in journalism seven years ago, many things were possible that are not permitted in the trade today - or, at any rate, not considered profitable working practice. For example, you could print a Sunday supplement cover story that was entirely about ideas, illustrated by an abstract image or an inanimate object. The week I began my work experience at the Independent on Sunday, the review cover story was an elegant essay by Stephen Bayley about kitchen design, accompanied by a front-page photograph of colanders, whisks and other utensils, lit so that they cast dramatic shadows. Nowadays that cover image would be laughed out of the editor's office. Every story is now thought to need, at its heart, a person.

This shift in attitude has resulted in a coarsening of discourse. Occasionally, a national paper will offer a long read, about something rather than someone, but for a reliably cerebral approach you have to go to specialist publications. The mainstream has taken the path of least resistance: teeth, tits and tragedy. You can see why. It's hard to pull off a spellbinding article about a vaccine or a methodology, and only a good (and therefore expensive) writer can do it. Any old hack can put together a tale of one woman's struggle to succeed against the odds. With huge, internet-driven losses afflicting almost every newspaper, it has become impossible for editors to justify the expensive, highbrow, unpopular approach to their owners.

In theory, everyone likes quality journalism. In practice, it is asking a lot of readers to say they should sit down at the end of a hard week to a gloriously high-concept piece about the Meaning of Whisks and Colanders. How much easier for them to reach for an article emblazoned with a beaming or weeping face that they probably recognise more speedily than their friends or neighbours and whose troubles they possibly know more intimately; someone whose face seems to reflect their own - a celebrity. Our basest needs are satisfied by celebrity journalism. And, in the meantime, intellectual faculties atrophy quickly.

When the weekly celebrity rag Heat achieved a circulation of half a million in 2004, it nudged the mainstream a step closer to the brink. It now feels as if every media outlet is being sucked into a vacuum, with television, magazines and newspapers working together in a maelstrom of mutual reinforcement, so that these perpetually emotional cartoon characters become the defining figures of our age.

They are treated with a combination of sycophancy, scorn and faux compassion. Occasionally this tone lapses into downright crassness, as when, in 2007, Heat printed a sticker of the glamour model Katie Price's disabled and overweight child, Harvey, with the caption: "Harvey wants to eat me!" This misjudgement was the nadir of a callous decade. Celebrities don't have our respect, but, crucially, they do have our attention - which means they are used to sell shampoos, car insurance, and even novels. Yes: novels that bear their name but have been ghostwritten on their behalf. The latest celebrity novel, The Mistress, by the former EastEnders actress Martine McCutcheon, which she insists she wrote on her own, came out on 6 November, blowing us into the new decade with a resounding raspberry to literature as we used to know it. Here's to a return to ideas, authorship and anonymity in 2010.

Hermione Eyre is a former TV critic of the Independent on Sunday

This article first appeared in the 14 December 2009 issue of the New Statesman, The Muslim Jesus