Introduction

Addicted to Celebrity

ONCE UPON A time in a far-off land, with cobblestone streets and gingerbread buildings, a handsome prince marries a beautiful girl from a distant country. The commoners enjoy a day off work to watch the wedding live on giant television screens all around the world and lo, another star is born.

Days after his girlfriend becomes Miss Universe, a handsome young car­penter strips off his shirt to reveal a sculpted torso and poses for photographers who snap and click and dispatch his photo to the newspaper, where it appears on page three and another wannabe saunters onto the celebrity production line.

Meanwhile, in the polished refinement of a parliamentary committee room, a government minister twists his tongue round an overly complicated descrip­tion of how he came to utter a misleading statement. The words gush, swamping meaning and clarity, and the public responds with a cynical shrug, expecting little more from their political leaders these days.

Across the ocean, the leader of the world's only superpower tests the inge­nuity of his speechwriters to explain how weapons of mass destruction could dematerialise, how repeated assertion can make an unsubstantiated statement true, how young soldiers and their commanding officers could imagine it would be alright to act out on other human beings temporarily in their custody the grotesque, humiliating parts from the bad movies they watched at home. Yet in his heartland crowds still pour onto the streets to watch the leader pass by, to cheer his speeches and feel his pain.

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STARS, LIES AND propaganda have become the stock in trade of public life, distorting reality, unhinging trust in institutions and corroding confidence. Who can you trust? What can you believe? Messages are now so massaged and refined that the raw material is sometimes unrecognisable.

In the process we have all become addicted to celebrity. As phoney, airbrushed and commercial as it is, we are awash in it and secretly rather enjoy it, the new lingua franca of a media age

Fleeting stars and their plastic moments are everywhere, celebrity has been democratised and is as available to Miss Universe and her handsome boyfriend as to the scruffy participant in a reality TV show or the kid at the back of the Australian Idol crowd. If only you get the right break, you too can bob above the surface of anonymity and have some fun. When it comes to being noticed, we no longer live in a meritocracy, more a mediocre "mediacracy", in which polished words and images are the key to recognition, the crucial first step towards celebrity which may or may not foretell fame.

Like any addiction it is as com­pelling for the users as the suppliers, and as corrosive of both. It promises revealing personal detail, the telltale insights that go to the heart of the human condition, the joy of love, the pain of loss and betrayal. More often it delivers promotional tat designed to sell a product. Even the apparently joyous marriage of Mary Donald­son and Prince Frederick, was reduced by others to commerce ­selling tourism, magazines, Danish beer, as the price of admission to the fairy tale.

Most of the time, as David Malouf writes, this obsession with celebrity "is so trivial as to be immediately forgettable", but occa­sionally it reaches deep into the wells of feeling "we thought we had left behind, or outgrown or forgotten". When this happens, as in the outpouring of grief after the death of Princess Diana – before the conspiracy theories kicked in – the media is astonished. The profits reaped from retailing her bruised fame were no predictor of the deeply felt loss that would follow her death.

The addiction to celebrity – fame's rich second cousin – has gone deeper since Diana died. It is no longer satisfied simply by flick­ing through the well-thumbed magazines in a thousand waiting rooms. The embellished life of the stars is no longer the fodder only of fanzines. It has made it into the mainstream; hardly a day passes without a story that passes for news reporting the lives of the rich and fleetingly famous, as befits the lingua franca of our time, as Catharine Lumby notes. Whole sec­tions of newspapers have become a profitable part of the back office of the celebrity business, television channels are devoted to eulogising celebrity, agonising over the human cost, creating new fantasies and re­enacting fairytales – watch the promos if not the shows, Price of fame, Celebrity minute, Soap to stardom.

Those behind the cameras know there is not enough time for every­one to have 15 minutes of fame. As impatient as any addict, the audi­ence taps its toes, watching and waiting for the inevitable fall, for the trail of smoke to replace the flaming phosphorous. Matthew Condon spent a year watching "conman" Peter Foster weave what Mark Cherry and Ruth Wajnryb call "selfebrity" on the Gold Coast, only to see it fizz. Foster was skewered by his own words when Andrew Denton, on the ABC's Enough Rope, witheringly accused him of being "addicted to notoriety".

The pain of limelight depriva­tion for those accustomed to being centre stage is real, but few sympa­thise. When wealthy stars take legal action to protect their privacy or reputation, there is a feeling that they are not honouring the terms of the Faustian deal they made, that in a whirl of paparazzi, gossip and rumour, reputation is disposable, but, as Margaret Simons writes, its loss is real and painful.

Most of the photos, quotes and stories are forgotten in a flash, the information equivalent of fast food. But while endless time is devoted to the pre-packaged celebrity industry, it gobbles the space that was once available to reported news about real events, real dilem­mas, real people. This is no longer only the obsession of trashy maga­zines and tabloids. The quality press, glitzy magazines, current affairs television and major pub­lishers have all been sucked into the celebrity vortex and its prof­itable promise. As Gideon Haigh writes, every column inch devoted to English footballer David Beckham's liaisons is space not available for something else. The news hole is shrinking as it is stuffed with manufactured junk.

 

THE JUNK IS not just about those who have succeeded, or who want to, the techniques of celebrity publicity and promotion having completely infiltrated public communication. Not so long ago earnest text books were written about the way television had changed politics, about how candidates won and lost elections based on their skill in front of a camera, about the tyranny of the 30-second grab.

Today it could be argued that politics has become its media shadow. Forget the 30-second grab, it's down to five or ten seconds, sufficient to mouth two or three well-practised sentences, and maybe a stunt, as Daniel Flitton writes – just enough for decision-making based on impressions, and another victory for emotion over intellect.

Of course political leaders have always tried to massage their message to put themselves in the best possible light and connect with their public, as Stephen Stockwell writes. Napoleon spent time plan­ning announcements instead of battles, Goebbels broke new ground in making the message of his evil regime persuasive and scores of long-since-forgotten leaders have applied his lessons. Hardly surprising then that in the war on terrorism, and in Afghanistan and Iraq, the informa­tion battlefield should be central. What was not expected was the degree to which new technologies could subvert the message minders and the mainstream media, throw­ing up images of torture – a victory of conscience over spin – and decapitation, to influence an infor­mation war with increasingly horrific visuals.

In this war the old techniques of political propaganda were dusted off and supplemented with new ones. Much of the media was caught on the hop. There have been other pivotal periods in the history of journalism, but these few years at the beginning of a new millen­nium will remain a period of note, discomfort – maybe even shame – for many years. A media accus­tomed to the fast food diet of spin and stars, and demoralised by accusations of political bias, was ill-equipped to bring a sceptical eye to questioning and reporting a much harder reality.

Both Bruce Page and Peter Manning show in their essays analysing the reporting of the lead-up to the war in Iraq – that much of the Australian and British press failed to dig beneath the surface of official statements and their sup­porting studies. At worst the press became an active and willing accomplice in official propaganda activities, at best an unwitting colo­nial conduit. In the United States the slow unravelling of the official rationales for the Iraq war – as weapons of mass destruction failed to materialise, the link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda was found to be tenuous and the moral underpinning subverted by the homemade images of prisoner abuse – provoked intensive soul searching. In its extended mea culpa in May 2004, The New York Times apologised for not looking harder, not asking tougher questions, and for being taken in by official state­ments. Journalists and editors were again reminded of what they had always known: just because an offi­cial says something, it is not necessarily so.

These are hard lessons, but the backwash is likely to provoke serious reconsideration about the relationship between journalism and politics. It may even reinvigo­rate the craft. It has happened before. This time it is most likely to happen as a result of a revival of old fashioned reporting, much of which will probably first find its voice on the internet.

Yet when the Queensland Premier, Peter Beattie, provoca­tively suggested last year that it was time to reconsider whether established accountability mecha­nisms were adequate in these days of monopoly and pervasive spin, he was howled down as a disap­pointed media tart, as Nancy Sikes reports. Beattie's parliamentary address is reprinted in this issue because it goes some way towards describing why public confidence in the media has slumped and out­lines the complexity of the underlying issues. It goes without saying that an institution reluctant to undertake critical self-examination is more likely to be prey to the delusion of spin. These are painful subjects for an industry that often feels besieged, but unless they are addressed there is little chance of corrective action. As Gideon Haigh argues, journalism in Australia is in crisis and there is no one left to blame.

 

WHILE IT IS true the politicians and public figures have always sought to put the best construction on their actions and behaviour, to create a palatable message and repeat it over and over, the methods of manufacturing and casting the message have become immeasurably more sophisticated, the relationship with the audience more nuanced. The simple tools of putting out the preferred message combined with not commenting and denying access on others have been supplemented by legislative restraints. And while there is much to be proud of in the Australian media, the techniques of reporting have failed to keep up with this leap in sophistication. It has left many journalists feeling cynical and dispirited. The combination of commercial imperatives and political caution are unlikely to breed brave journalism. The lesson of the assault on the ABC's reporting of the lead up to the war in 2003 was clear. Its quietly sceptical tone provoked political denunciations and several inquiries, but nothing as dramatic as the Hutton inquiry in Britain, which stripped the BBC of its most senior executives, or The New York Times's apology. Politicians never like a sceptical tone – except when addressed to their opponents but citizens are often grateful, especially with hindsight. This is well illustrated in Brian Urquhart's review of the Hutton Report and Hans Blix's book Disarming Iraq and in Nick Richardson's "Ten commandments of spin" which make up the online supplement to Addicted to Celebrity. www.griffith. edu.au/griffithreview.

Three memoirs in this edition of Griffith REVIEW go beyond propaganda to explore real life in a war zone: Gallipoli, East Timor and Baghdad. The picture that emerges in these essays by Laurie Hergenhan, Geoff Thompson and Tony Preston-Stanley is quite different to either the political spin or two-minute news items. Each points to the (often troubled) triumph of the human spirit over suffering and fear and provides new ways of seeing, an important corrective, as Paul Monk writes in his analysis of how intelligence officers can get things so badly wrong.

Such genuine insights are rare yet refreshing, a far cry from the glib political speak that is causing such widespread unease. Raimond Gaita argues that the "cynical expectation that politicians will lie to protect their party or their own careers" reveals "how impover­ished our life with the language of politics has become". The conse­quences of this debasement are profound and stir intense feelings. As Brendon O'Connor writes in his review of the half dozen bestsellers that seek to explore the inner work­ings of the Bush White House, there is a "fine line between vision­ary fear and paranoid loathing".

 

THIS IS NOT all played out on the political stage. As the techniques of entertainment and politics have merged, the addiction to celebrity has become more acute, more corrosive. Playwright Stephen Sewell is deeply troubled about the way the stories America tells about itself celebrate the country's dark side an alliance of militarism, religion, business and Hollywood that now lurches "dangerously out of control across the world".

Beautiful stars and their glam­orous lives are the sugar coating on this pill, the sweetest part of the soft exports that take the images of America into every corner of the globe. But even those at the centre of the creation of this juggernaut are sometimes troubled by the bru­tality of the beast, its relentless commerce, super-sized egos and mundaneness, as Peter Craven, Anthony May, Greg Barns, Marion Halligan and Michael Wilding explore.

Yet the celebrity pill can be very sweet. Only the most churlish could fail to be heartened by the fairytale wedding in the capital of fairytales, falling as it did in the midst of a storm of pictures of humiliation and torture in an Iraqi jail. Some­times the sweet pill can last longer than an all-day sucker, providing a glimpse of glamour and joy that can sustain a life on stage or in the audience, as actor Bille Brown recalls in his touching recollection of escorting a famous old actress to the theatre where her fans still clamoured. Anne Zahalka's photo essay beautifully shows just how fleeting and ordinary celebrity can be, and the real pleasure it can bring. Like so many addictions, our addiction to celebrity may point to a deeper need; something David Malouf suggests that keeps our best writers writing and the rest of us wondering.

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