Friday 13 December 2019

Celebrities can't just turn on and off publicity tap

The famous shouldn't be able to treat the little people as passive consumers, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

'PUBLISH and be damned' used to be the defiant slogan of the newspaper mogul. But today the slogan is 'publish and be sued' as the rich, famous and powerful all scurry off to the courts seeking injunctions to stop the press reporting on the details of their grubby little lives.

There are even things called 'super injunctions' now. Presumably those are ordinary mild-mannered injunctions which stop off in phone boxes to change, emerging moments later with a letter S pasted on their chests, bright red pants pulled on over blue tights. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's Super Injunction, flying off once more on the never-ending battle for airbrushed PR, insincerity and the celebrity way.

Latest to run to the courts is the "instantly recognisable" global female pop star who last week was the centre of a blackmail trial. It emerged that a 24-year-old unemployed fitness instructor by the name of Sebastian Bennett had entered her house in London last November whilst she was asleep and stolen two laptops which turned out to contain 27 "highly sensitive" photographs. He then tried to sell them back to her. Aforementioned global female pop star promptly called in Scotland Yard, who set up a sting, recovered the memory stick, and arrested Bennett, who last week was cleared of burglary but convicted of blackmail and handling stolen goods at Isleworth Crown Court.

The interesting point was not the burglary or blackmail so much as the injunction which the pop star sought, and was granted, preventing the press from reporting anything about her, not just her name, but her age, nationality, relationship status, whether she has children, what she had for breakfast . . . So far it's been very effective too, as her identity remains a secret to most people, despite plenty of fevered speculation online. Basically if you have a home in London and have ever had a hit record, then there's someone on the internet prepared to state with authority that you're the woman in question.

There can't be many people who don't have sympathy for her either, whoever she is -- albeit tempered with a slight dose of eye-rolling at the naivete of the modern celebrity. So you have sensitive pictures, presumably of a sexual nature, on your laptop and you just leave it lying around for any burglar to make off with? How stupid are you?

Whether that means you should be able to prevent every person on the planet from knowing you've been blackmailed is a separate issue. Joe and Josephine Soap certainly wouldn't get this level of special treatment. Should being rich and famous and having access to the best lawyers change the nature of the process?

More to the point, once it becomes as easy to get one of these super injunctions as it is to order a mail order bride from the Philippines, it's only a short step before the procedure is abused by those with more important secrets to hide than what they get up to in front of the webcam. It's even claimed that Premiership footballers have clubbed together to launch a fund to help one another out with legal costs if the details of their sex lives threaten to come back and haunt them.

Meanwhile, a married TV presenter in the UK was recently granted a gagging order against the press forbidding them from reporting the fact that his ex-wife claims to have had a sexual relationship with him after he remarried. If footballers and TV presenters can now make the legal system dance this easily on strings like a puppet, how long before more high-powered individuals do likewise?

Yes, I know that we, as journalists, have brought this on our own heads. We went too far down the road to intrusion, and this is the backlash. But that doesn't make it right. Better by far to live in a world where a celebrity's every indiscretion is plastered across the front pages than one in which Mr X gets to wallow in every manner of sordid activity behind closed doors whilst cynically playing the family man for public consumption.

Get rid of that most demonised tabloid culture, after all, and what's left isn't some pristine high-minded utopia. It's more likely to be a hypocritical, patrician stitch up, like they've had in France for years, where the great and the good can basically behave however abominably they like without fear of exposure; or else the shiny flip side of Tabloid Land in which the only information allowed to leak down to the little people comes via Hello! photoshoots -- as the Wayne Rooneys of the world pocket their multi-million fees for selling pictures of their wedding and the prostitute grannies and nightclub slappers get buried under a tide of saccharine lies.

That's the real joke. The only reason why anyone is interested in what instantly recognisable global pop stars get up to in the bedroom is because they've thrust themselves repeatedly into our lives in the quest for fame, impossible wealth, adulation. Nobody forced them to put their souls up for auction. When they suddenly can't control the nature of the publicity they receive, they want to turn off the tap. It shouldn't work that way. You shouldn't be able to treat the little people only as passive consumers, and not expect there to be occasional negative consequences from turning your life into a marketable commodity. Increasingly, though, the courts are dancing to the tune of the rich and pampered in some kind of shortsighted payback for actual or perceived misdemeanours by the press in the past.

I'm not going to pretend there's some overriding public interest at stake in this particular case. I'll own up. As one of the little people, I'm probably just annoyed because I'm nosy and want to know the identity of the global pop star in question. Thankfully, I have no life so I can spend hours trawling through Google in search of the truth.

Maybe that makes me a bad person. Personally, I'd say that she who is tired of gossip is tired of life, but I'm prepared to admit that it's not the most wholesome or admirable quality. We, the shallow people, will consider ourselves suitably chastised. But it remains unquestionably true that any power to silence or censor, however well-meaning, will in time be abused by some pretty unpleasant people, and that we'll all be worse off for it. It shouldn't matter if a story is embarrassing, or inconvenient, or highly sensitive.

The only thing that should ultimately matter is whether it's true.

Sunday Independent

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