Reportage of the various heartfelt testimonies from the Leveson Inquiry this week have left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, not even the hard arsed heart of a wizened old PR man could fail to be moved by the tales told by those ordinary humans swept into the press maelstrom: the Mccanns, or particularly the Dowlers. These people are living testament to the sometimes frightening power of the story over the truth. It’s a power I’ve occasionally used to great advantage in the course of my work, but wielded without responsibility it can provoke violent disruption in the lives of publicity civilians.
More to the point, such people haven’t the funds or the knowledge to build suitable defences. They most certainly are not fair game.
However, I’ve less sympathy for Hugh Grant, Sienna Miller and the rest of them. While I wouldn’t go so far as Piers Morgan (who earlier in the week tweeted with typical flair “I do hope Nelson Mandela was watching Hugh Grant today, so he now understands what real persecution is all about”), as always in these situations I am inclined to remember the words of Clark Gable. If you’re going to sign a contract with fame, you’d better make sure you read the fine print.
It seems to me that it’s a question of investment- on both sides. While in places there have been clear breaches of morality or legality by the press, I can’t help but feel that ‘twas ever thus. It’s always been the media’s job to grab the story, it’s never been part of its remit to be fair. Clark, Marilyn and all of their generation all knew that, and they weren’t the first. However, they were largely kept immune from toxic stories by the excellent training they received at the hands of their studios. In the golden age of Hollywood, the movie business knew that a large portion of its precious capital came from maintaining squeaky clean stardom among its leading guys and dolls.
Nowadays, when celebrities hire publicists they look more often than not for relentless sharks, guaranteed to grab them as many column inches as humanly possible whenever they want to sell something. Those in the public eye would do well to take a lesson from the inquiry and put their money and time into generating a much more valuable relationship with an even handed publicist, one who commands tangible respect in journalistic circles. Coogan’s reduction of PR to ‘arranging interviews’ demonstrates the lack of awareness among celebrities as to just how valuable a good publicist can be. There’s plenty of them out there, but they need to be dug out.
On the side of the publicists, it’s up to these media professionals to make sure they maintain the ability for proper judgement: over-filling your client roster and chasing after names above feasibility make for image disasters.
I’m far from an apologist though: the press have made many wrong moves. Not least among these is the knee-jerk reaction by various prominent tweeters and commentators from the tabloid set-Piers Morgan et al- mischeviously characterising the inquiry as the meaningless whining of celebs. What’s needed is collaboration between the tabloids and their ‘victims’, and an end to pointless generalising and name calling.
The tabloids ‘per se’ are not the problem here, but they too need to look at how they might invest. Quality journalism has become compromised by money-saving attitudes. Those doing the harassing are the feral freelancers and would be paparazzi desperate for any story that might propel them into journalism’s golden circle, willing to chase any story for the fiver it might bag them. Now that the march of technology allows anyone willing to play the role a passable go at being a photographer, the crime committed by the tabloids is to lean on the crutch of cheap labour. This is where the poison begins.
Should the celebs and the press reach an impasse, we must bear in mind that the strangulation of tabloid journalism in this country would leave a vacuum only to be filled by showbiz websites bent on fevered fan adoration. This hardly sounds like a set up that’s easy to regulate. Publicists and journalists alike would need no skills, would develop no meaningful relationships, they’d simply be a lucky few. There’s no art in that and, more importantly, there’s little incentive to uncover the truth.