Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Monkey Tennis

The victims of Stuart Hall, Max Clifford and Rolf Harris have talked about the mesmeric nature of fame, and how it can make you unable to resist abuse while simultaneously grateful for the attention. The same mechanism was exploited by Jimmy Savile, but his is a more important case because his career of abuse depended on connivance and willed ignorance by others in authority. In this sense, he has more in common with Rebekah Brooks, despite her innocence of phone-hacking, in terms of modus operandi.

Hall and Harris are examples of the petty abuse of power - the corruption common to minor functionaries and bullies - opportunistically taking advantage of the impressionable and vulnerable who crossed their paths. Clifford was more parasitical, exploiting his proximity to celebrities while exhibiting loathing of himself (the obsession with his knob) and many of his erstwhile clients. The common theme is opportunity and a lack of moral scruple where temptation was concerned. In contrast, Savile and Brooks saw power in instrumental and transactional terms and set out to amass it, the one through a strategy of self-promotion and the other through relentless networking. The distinction is between the idea of celebrity as an intrinsic quality - personal talent or prestige - and a form of capital that is accumulated.

As the media for projecting a personality have increased in scope and number over time, celebrity has not concentrated but proliferated. Instead of Big Brother we have the Z-list. Celebrity has become a profuse commodity. In their different ways, both Savile and Brooks appreciated that the growth in bandwidth meant an increasing demand for content. Savile was a hustler and a "self-punter", for ever making grandiose claims and pushing self-interested schemes. It was like Alan Partridge and Monkey Tennis but without the humour. Brooks was ultimately the product of changing economics, as falling paper sales led to a turn away from expensive hard news towards celebrity gossip and synthetic anger. An irony of the phone-hacking trial is the extent to which the tabloids came to rely on premium-rate phonelines, from inhouse competitions to sex-chat adverts. That, rather than the vulnerability of voice-mail, was the significant impact of mobile phone technology on newspapers: it changed the revenue dynamic.

Jeremy Hunt recently insinuated that Savile's long history of abuse in NHS hospitals was the product of institutional failure and personal negligence, and thus consistent with the government's critique of the organisation. He was predictably coy about the evidence that hospitals turned a blind eye because of the fund-raising and publicity that Savile's involvement brought. Suggesting that dependence on external finance might be corrupting is not politically helpful when you're trying to open up the NHS to private providers. Savile wasn't indulged because he was "just Jimmy", but because he was important to revenue. This was transactional.

Savile's abuse was not the product of his actual celebrity. Rather he parlayed his limited celebrity as a third-rate DJ and charmless laughing-stock into a career as a charity fund-raiser. It was this that provided the opportunity to gain privileged access to vulnerable victims, and also access to other power networks that could advance and protect him (Christmas with Thatcher etc). His appetite for public service campaigns (Clunk-Click, The Age of the Train) was mirrored in his walking from Lands End to John O'Groats three times: literally national coverage. Jim'll Fix It was an inspired idea, from his perspective. Initially, the BBC did have concerns about what was being "fixed", but in terms of the risks of product placement by conniving businesses. Throughout his life, Savile was a fixer and influence-peddler, and someone who instinctively understood the commodity nature of celebrity.

Rebekah Brooks's defence in the phone-hacking trial boiled down to persistent ignorance in her role as editor. She had to construct a personality for the jury that was both incompetent (she knew nothing) and sympathetic (she was distracted by fertility treatment, the breakup of her first marriage, her anti-paedophile campaign etc). What this left was the reality of a relentless operator who cultivated relationships for instrumental ends and was incapable of distinguishing between sentimentality and ethical principles. The post-verdict speech - "I've learnt some valuable lessons and hopefully I'm the wiser for it" - was straight out of the embarrassed politician's playbook.

Brooks's rise and subsequent fall has fascinated the broadsheets, who despise her for not being a "real" journalist and for being too much the schmoozer (and Blair's mate). The flame-haired witch trope and the many testaments to her flirtatious charm are the sort of jejune sexism you can expect from ex-public schoolboys who go weak at the knees when a woman touches their arm. Some of the contempt is self-deluding romanticism: an affront to the ideal of the principled, campaigning editor from CP Snow to Lou Grant. Some of it is class contempt: the conflation of the tabloid readership's presumed gullibility and prurience with the amorality of the journos and their seedy sub-contractors. Some of it is unease because her career reveals that running a newspaper is just a branch of PR, which perhaps gives an insight into the empathy that Cameron had for both her and Coulson.

Being a propaganda organ is hardly novel for a newspaper, but this is now pursued on an "industrial scale" by a global corporation like News Corp / Fox News, rather than being simply the byproduct of institutional prejudice. It is noticeable how many "campaigns" in the popular press these days are confected: an over-promoted combination of the unobjectionable and the marginal. We have moved from resonant social issues, such as Rachmanism and Thalidomide, to the hyperbolic sentimentality of Sarah's Law and Our Brave Boys. This is partly economics again: the tabloids are averse to funding major investigations while the broadsheets find it easier and cheaper to operate closer to home, hence the bias towards government scandals (cash for questions, MPs' expenses etc) and the incestuous relationship with The Met, who artlessly provide both investigatory legwork and their own dirty linen. Corporate power has never had it so easy, despite the periodic chuntering about tax avoidance.

David Cameron's apology in respect of Andy Coulson suggests both a man who didn't trouble to enquire too closely into his appointee's past (which feeds the stereotype of the PM as a lazy chancer), but a better interpretation would be that his willed ignorance was simply the product of being at ease with a man he understood. Coulson's attraction was not his empathy for the common man (feeding the stereotype of the cabinet as out-of-touch elitists), which is hardly a rare gift, but his connections with News International and his proven media-management skills. This was transactional. Rupert Murdoch has emerged from the scandal commercially stronger, largely because of the defensive separation of newsprint from TV. The money spent on defending Brooks, Coulson et al is chicken-feed if it provides an effective firebreak against a prosecution under the US Foreign and Corrupt Practises Act.

The different verdicts for Coulson and Brooks reflect their different operational involvement in "editing": the one a hack, the other a networker. Brooks's wilful ignorance about what was going on in her own newspaper would be amusing if it weren't typical of executive behaviour: covering her arse through "empowerment" and plausible deniability. Whereas Coulson was interested in celebrity purely as a commodity, something he could transform into stories and circulation, Brooks was seduced by a belief in her own intrinsic power. She was a user as well as a dealer, trading up through the celeb hierarchy from Piers Morgan via Ross Kemp to Blair and the Chipping Norton set.

There is a contrast to be made here with George Entwhistle, a BBC lifer who was technically well-qualified for the Director General role but completely at sea when trying to handle the politics outside the walls of Broadcasting House: the exact opposite of Brooks. In his case, empowerment was his undoing. An experienced arse-coverer would have issued an email to all staff on day one stating that in light of the Savile allegations any stories concerning sexual abuse would have to be cleared with the DG's office before broadcast. This would have been contrary to his instincts and experience, but exactly the sort of thing that an astute politician would have done.

When confronted with the crimes of Savile, some contemporaries, like Esther Rantzen, have excused their blindness by claiming that it was a more innocent era with different standards of behaviour. This is self-serving nonsense. Sexual abuse is not a recent invention but a common aspect of power relations. What has changed since the 1970s is that authority has shrunk in some institutional areas, such as teaching and medicine, while it has grown in other marketised areas, such as management and celebrity. This is a product of neoliberalism, which has delivered enhanced power to executives while imposing greater inspection on workers. This shift in authority is reflected in changes in opportunity and temptation: more cocaine in the boardroom, less petty pilfering. The result is that there are fewer cases of teachers abusing pupils (though these few get blanket media exposure), but more cases of headteachers abusing funds (routinely hushed-up outside the public sector).

The growth in cases of historic and contemporary sexual abuse by celebrities reflects a growth in the quantum of newsworthy "slebs" and a parallel growth in the demand for salacious content by both bored consumers and cash-strapped media. There has not been a shift in morality. What has happened is the arrival of multi-channel TV, the Internet, and the symbiotic recycling of these two by newspapers. We live in the age of Monkey Tennis.

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