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It has been victims’ week at the public inquiry into press standards in London. As the outrage over the various crimes of the tabloid press – some, like phone-hacking, actually illegal, many others certainly unethical – intensifies, some of those most terribly treated have pitched up at the Leveson inquiry to tell their stories. Several like the Dowlers and the McCanns have jaw-dropping stories of press abuse towards families trying cope with the murder or disappearance of a child.
Interspersed between these harrowing tales of ordinary people are the celebrity sagas. People such as Hugh Grant (I’m just a man, standing in front of a judge, asking him to kick the holy crap out of the press) and Steve Coogan have told their tales of press intrusion. Some may be put off by their sanctimonious anger – especially when compared with the quiet dignity of those whose suffering has been far greater – but they also have right on their side. Grant argues persuasively that just because his career makes him famous does not mean he has signed a pact with the tabloid devil which offers unfettered access to his every private action.
But when watching the celebrities give evidence it seems possible that actually theirs is likely to become an outmoded view. While the clampdowns work well for those who have already made it, they are no use at all to the press, the film studios or anyone still trying to claw their way up. If today’s stars don’t want to play ball, the media will create a whole new generation of celebs, only too happy to surrender the PINs to their mobile phones as the price of fame.
It is already happening now as people with looks but no discernible talent throw open their lives to reality television shows. The model Jordan appears to live out her life on camera and it requires real effort not to keep up with the Kardashians. The sex lives of women you’ve never heard of – yet who are identified only by their first name as if they were Madonna – adorn the gossip sheets. The faces of reality talent shows fill the music charts and populate stage shows. Our media is replacing these privacy conscious prima-donnas with an altogether more compliant breed. The only talent needed is a flair for publicity. “Need a sex tape to generate some fresh attention; no problem.”
Grant denies he ever signed a Faustian pact with the media – and that’s exactly the problem, the lack of a watertight deal. In future, Mephistopheles of the Mail will make sure he gets it in writing. The press doesn’t want to go through the pain of building up a new generation of stars only for them to get all touchy once they’ve made it. They’ll want a watertight “no-privacy clause good for at least 10 years”. “In return for the publicity needed to make them a star, the named party will consent to having their rubbish bins trawled through on the second Thursday of each month; said bins must contain no fewer than two love letters and a compromising photograph.” For those whose private behaviour is too discreet, agencies will arrange clandestine meetings. Lap dancers looking for a TV slot can be paired with film stars who need to fulfil the “love rat” clause in their contract, requiring them to provide prima facie evidence of at least one extramarital affair a quarter.
Future inquiries into press misconduct will hear very different tales of abuse. Amber, a lads’ mag model and reality TV performer, will sob quietly as she recalls how she stood in her bikini on a freezing Cornish beach for 45 minutes waiting for the paparazzi who had arranged to snatch illicit photos. “Have you any idea how hard it is to hold in your stomach for 45 minutes,” she’ll say angrily. “I felt utterly violated. I trusted him to turn up but instead he’d two-timed for some soap star who had arranged to check into a hotel with a lap dancer.”
Others will recall the terrible moment when their publicist broke the news their phone was no longer being hacked into. “I was devastated. I felt utterly rejected. Even my sex tape didn’t interest them.”
A 1994 movie about the US quiz show scandals of the 1950s in which favoured contestants were given the answers noted that the entertainment was not the questions being answered but the money being won. If TV networks could no longer rig the contest they’d just make the questions easier instead. The media doesn’t need many of its current stars; it just needs a diet of glamorous women, hunky guys and sex scandals. If today’s celebrities are too difficult the media will just find people who are easier.