Quoted in the Radio Times this week, veteran foreign correspondent and broadcaster Michael Buerk said that he was ‘a little sniffy about celebs pratting around among the world’s victims’. He went on say that he hated it when,” feather-bedded thesps pay flying visits to the desperate to parade their bleeding hearts and trumpet their infantile ideas on what ‘must be done’. There’s only so much of the Benedict and Emma worldview you can take.”
This caused the Guardian’s Anne Perkins to (not unreasonably) wonder what Buerk thought of Band Aid’s response to his BBC news reports from famine stricken Ethiopia in 1984. Wasn’t it the actions of the Geldof- Ure celebrity partnership and resulting publicity that had caused the world to know a lot more about famine and its causes?
Whatever the truth of that, Buerk’s antipathy towards the likes of Cumberbatch and Thompson is shared by a vocal hierarchy in politics and journalism. As I’ve written before, in the case of Charlotte Church’s political campaigning, people like Buerk are transparently suspicious of celebrities having political opinions. As if being proficient in one area disqualifies involvement in another, anyone not from their protected elite of recognised voices is denied the opportunity to meaningfully contribute. It could be, in John Street’s words, that criticism of celebrity activism has its roots in a fear that it debases” liberal democratic political representation” and marginalises relevant expertise.
It is certainly not a new phenomenon. Street notes that as far back as the 17th century non-political public figures (such as the poets John Dryden, John Milton and Andrew Marvell) were voicing their opinions on the English civil war and in the 19th century the most celebrated and most noted critic of governmental social policy and advocator of reform in Britain was Charles Dickens.
But of course modern celebrity is an entirely different entity. As Meyer and Gamson highlight, todays celebrities do not generally come not from the arts or literature but from the mass media of film, television, sport or pop music. The distrust or suspicion of a pop stars views on, say, global warming may be because the star’s renown is based on public attention and not through institutionalised learning or experience. When you add to the mix the fact that modern performer’s careers are transient and often based on relentless self-promotion and the gaining of wealth, it’s not difficult to see why audiences may question authenticity and motive.
Perhaps the star who illustrates the above and has come in for the most criticism over the years is U2 frontman, Bono. In 2013 the environmentalist and activist George Monbiot wrote a scathing attack on the singer and his ONE campaign to end poverty and preventable diseases in Africa. Far from working on behalf of the extremely poor, Monbiot asserted that ONE was a collection of multi-millionaires who were a projection of US corporate power. He also referred to The Frontman: Bono (in the Name of Power) by Harry Browne which positions Bono as someone who, without any kind of mandate, has become spokesperson for Africa. Bono’s approach to Africa, writes Monbiot quoting Browne, is “a slick mix of traditional missionary and commercial colonialism, in which the poor world exists as a task for the rich world to complete.” As I understand it, in John Street’s terms Bono threatens our assumptions of the character of political representation. There is the privileging of style over substance and appearance over reality. In another sense, the difficulty is in separating Bono the performer and entertainer from Bono the serious and committed activist.
There is another view on celebrity activism which is much more benevolent. As Ellis Cashmore argues, celebrities have become vital in helping keep issues such as climate change and animal welfare in the public consciousness. Returning to the subject of Band Aid and Live Aid, the BBC’s news coverage of the Ethiopian famine alone could not have captured the 1.5 billion viewers that Live Aid did. It was clearly the continued and prolonged participation of Geldof and co that helped to ensure the images of disease and death remained on the news agenda.
This is why Oxfam have stars such as Coldplay as ambassadors. In purely commercial terms, they bring the audience to the product. In the weekend of Sport Relief it’s pertinent to note the views of Jane Cooper, UNICEF UK director of communications, who told the Independent in 2014 that “Celebrities have a unique ability to reach millions of people, many of whom may not normally be engaged on the suffering of the world’s children.”
We also may ask ourselves whether celebrities have finally superseded politicians in the ability to engage with audiences. It would appear that in the US we now have the ultimate celebrity politician in the shape of Donald Trump. As Gordon Grovitz recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “Trump’s campaign has obliterated whatever line remained between politics and entertainment”. And the Donald’s main selling point? That he’s saying the unsayable and representing the disenfranchised who resent the political elites. For Donald Trump we may one day read Katie Hopkins. It’s not only the Apprentice that they have in common. Could the future be the Reagan– Thatcher style love in recreated for electorates more interested in sound bites rather than sincerity? Perhaps that’s Buerk’s real fear.
And one final thing on Trump from Grovitz excellent article: the media that claims to detest Trump needs him to keep going. It’s only ever about money:
The head of CBS, Les Moonves, told a recent investor conference that the Trump-dominated campaign “may not be good for America,” but “it is damn good for CBS. . . . The money’s rolling in and this is fun. . . . Bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”