LONDON — The front page of Wednesday’s Daily Mirror said: “Angus Deayton is a coke-snorting, hooker-hiring, three-in-a-bed love rat . . .” The front page of the Daily Mail said: “John Leslie is a vile, arrogant man who despises women . . .” Both men were sacked by their TV employers the same day.
If you have never heard of either of them, don’t feel ashamed. They are minor TV celebs, known to those who watch their programs, but otherwise famous only because they have entered the weird world of Celeb Tabloidistan.
If you only read a broadsheet newspaper and watch documentary programs, this world is more mysterious and incomprehensible than a minor Caucasian republic. It is peopled by men and women you have never heard of, famous for achievements you do not recognize and distinguished primarily by the fact that they are under 40 and good-looking, if in a rather bland and vapid sort of way.
Of the mass of celebrities who have been dished out by the tabloids over the last six months, it is only worth mentioning two, who have achieved fame in other spheres. One is Alex Ferguson, the manager of football team Manchester United. While in South Africa, a wannabe local woman sold a story to the Daily Mail that Ferguson had groped her in a taxi. It made headline news. The South African police investigated and found no truth to her allegations. The other is former Tory Prime Minister John Major, who was hit by former Tory Minister Edwina Currie’s revelation that the two had had a secret, four-year affair. Perhaps the main point about Major was the fact that he had always been thought of as bland and dull.
Celeb Tabloidistan is a world in which love, respect, curiosity and concern for others have no place at all. In fact, its underlying cruelty is that only people who are rather vapid and dull flourish in it. Their inevitable punishment — tabloid anathema pronouncing them disgusting sleaze-bags whom you would not let open the local supermarket — follows as inevitably as a stone falls to earth. There is something quite surreal about it all.
It is not worth going through the allegations made against Leslie or, in particular, Deayton. Use of either cocaine or prostitutes is not a crime in Britain. Many of the journalists who denounce coke-snorting and hooker-hiring with such a flourish sneak off to snort coke and hire hookers themselves.
At first glance, then, the front-page stories seem important only because those who inhabit this weird world are like the child with his hand in the sweet jar; they are so overexcited that their wits are addled by the smell of the sweeties and their sense of the wider world outside is blotted out.
Drugs, sex and popular journalism are creakingly familiar features of the 21st century here. So too are the moral dilemmas they create — maintaining high moral standards vs. hypocrisy, censorship vs. free choice. What is not so familiar is the monetary value of the ordinary woman’s experience. Any woman who has been close enough to any halfway-famous man to smell his underpants now has an experience that is worth a lot of money. This sexual, domestic world used to be one in which women were notoriously lacking in value; be they good housewives and mothers or bad tarts and slags, their experience was not worth a penny and made no history. It was the epitome of those invisible people who are born, live and die without leaving a trace.
Now, any woman might find herself in possession of a potential fortune simply for having a slight, intimate acquaintance with a man in search of a celebrity persona. For women who can boast few skills, this is a stunning realization.
There can hardly be a man over 30 in public life who is not now wondering whether some previous intimate (male or female) might suddenly pick up the phone to the Daily Mail and “reveal all” — i.e., a highly embroidered account of a sexual encounter, retold in the sensational, semipornographic language that is the lingua franca of Celeb Tabloidistan.
An historian in Britain, Theodore Zeldin, has written, among other things, “An Intimate History of Humanity.” Published in 1994, Zeldin’s book explores how what we might think of as private, natural and eternal has in fact been made by human effort — though not necessarily knowing or willing human effort. In the course of his study, he explores how the power relationships man creates in his domestic life — with plants, animals, children and fellow adults — generate cruelty, slavery, dependence, gratification and delusions, and the omnipresent modern problems of loneliness and inability to communicate what is important to and about oneself.
Recently, Zeldin has argued that this world of intimate relations has superseded the public importance of politics and civic involvement. Increasingly, he thinks, human beings seek meaning and worth in intimate relationships.
Today’s cultural economy, in which a woman’s worth lies in the intimate secrets she can sell, suggests a more contorted and venal version of the idea of intimacy as the new meaning of life. For there is a horrible paradox here that rather undercuts the idea that the public and the political have become meaningless and worthless.
As women in particular are finding, intimate relations may well be the most important relationships in life — but to give the women a sense of their larger value, they must be revealed in public, and made of a larger political significance. Virtually all the pretend “scandals” that fuel the tabloid machines derive from intimate “secrets” sold to the newspapers by women and men who have had a brush with a celebrity. This very process makes a mockery of the tender idea of intimacy. It replaces it with something vicious, mercenary and revengeful.
It also keeps money as the driving force of what is important in life. Long before this, the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s was insisting on the centrality of intimate relations to the conduct of life in general. Feminists’ readiness to talk openly of sex, and strip it of its mystery, made possible the tabloid-sex economy of today.
But, unlike the 21st century, the earlier feminist politics failed to inject intimacy with loads of money.
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