Inside Business

November 30, 2011 1:22 pm

Celebrities are right to be wary of Faustian media pacts

The rise of social media signals a shift of power away from press and press agents, says Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson

Whether the funereal “Pie Jesu” and “O Mio Babbino Caro” (“Oh, my beloved father”) were the most appropriate musical choices for Rupert Murdoch’s wedding to Wendi Deng are not the biggest questions raised by the UK newspaper hacking scandal.

However, when Charlotte Church testified this week that she had been offered £100,000 or friendly coverage from Mr Murdoch’s newspapers to perform, and opted for the latter, the soprano gave some sense of the value celebrities put on positive press.

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Her former manager said the idea of getting warm write-ups in return for such a favour was part of a routine “trade” between celebrities and those who make them famous. “You can’t make money and be in the public eye unless you’re written about,” Jonathan Shalit told the Financial Times.

But the same press that builds you up will also knock you down, he added: “If you dance with the devil, you expect to get bitten.” (Headlines about Ms Church turned quickly from “Voice of an angel” to “Vice of an angel”.)

Ms Church and other personalities who have been testifying to the Leveson Inquiry into UK press standards may not mean much to every FT reader. The celebrity names should also not distract from the accounts of despicable intrusion given by bereaved parents and other members of the public dragged into the harsh tabloid spotlight.

But the inquiry should serve as a reminder of the extent to which vast global media businesses now rest on the relationship between the famous and the fourth estate, and of how fragile that relationship has become.

Countless newspaper, magazine, television, PR and sponsorship business models have been built on this interdependency of celebrities and the media. Steve Coogan, the comic actor, dubbed it a Faustian pact; JK Rowling told Lord Leveson that media interest “must have had some beneficial effects” on Harry Potter book sales; while Hugh Grant described press interviews as “a form of barter”.

There is nothing new in watching publicists grease the wheels of this relationship (Hollywood press agents were placing stories with gossip columnists such as Walter Winchell in movies’ black and white era). Nor are questionable media deals original, as witnessed by the “payola” scandals in US radio in the 1950s.

What has changed is the scale. Celebrity stories were not always the mainstay even of London’s “street of shame”. When George Orwell wrote about the News of the World in 1946, its selling point was grisly murders.

Now celebrities dominate every British tabloid (and more upmarket rivals), US supermarket scandal sheets such as the National Enquirer, Bild and Paris Match in Europe, magazines from Hello! and OK! to People and US Weekly, cable channels such as E! and online challengers including TMZ and Perez Hilton.

Demand has seemed to meet the rising supply. Millions of readers devour every detail of actresses’ private lives and pore over long-lens photographs snapped on exotic beaches. But there are signs that the celebrity-dependent media may have peaked.

American Media, publisher of the National Enquirer, went through a Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructuring late last year; Richard Desmond sold OK!’s US edition after taking heavy losses; most US celebrity magazines have seen advertising sales falter this year, and traffic to online gossip sites has flattened off.

Celebrity coverage is becoming commoditised. That is a hard sell to readers and advertisers alike, and the UK tabloids’ excesses are in part a function of too many titles scrapping over a declining audience.

Worryingly for media owners like Mr Murdoch, these excesses have left celebrities doubting the value of their uneasy symbiosis with the press. “Newspapers have never helped me sell any significant number of records,” Ms Church said, declaring that she no longer needs newspapers as much as they need her.

Hugh Grant echoed the sentiment, saying: “The only significant argument that can be made for including tabloid papers in a [film’s] PR campaign these days is the risk of incurring their wrath by excluding them.” If intimidation is the only thing binding celebrities to tabloids, newspapers are in even deeper trouble.

Media companies have become adept at adding to the supply of celebrities through reality television formats such as The X Factor and Big Brother. These throw off a new generation of fame-hungry tabloid subjects every season, “whose principal source of income is celebrity itself,” in Mr Grant’s words.

But the reality phenomenon has obscured an important point about the business of fame. It may not sound like it when Sienna Miller talks about being harassed by paparazzi, but when Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie can sell their baby pictures for $14m, the balance of power has shifted decisively to the celebrity.

The internet’s disintermediating nature is especially powerful for celebrities with personal brands strong enough that they can market themselves directly to fans online, via Twitter, Facebook and personal websites.

These now increasingly seed celebrity media, rather than the other way around (“Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore tweet”, read one recent headline on PerezHilton.com). Justin Bieber’s 17m-strong following on Twitter tops any national newspaper or celebrity magazine readership.

Just as the internet has enabled self-publishing, so it is facilitating self-publicising, letting celebrities play the part of press and press agent alike. The next Charlotte Church may make a very different calculation about the Faustian pacts the media offer.

Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is the FT’s media editor

andrew.edgecliffejohnson@ft.com

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