Disgusted! The ballad of Maidstone jail

Even the self-promoting pop impresario could not have hoped for fuller coverage of his release
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The Independent Online

Celebrity culture is bound to produce spin-offs: not only execrable television shows celebrating celebrity, newspapers dominated by celebrities and government policy legitimised by celebrities rather than politicians, but inevitably the dark side of celebrity - celebrity crime and punishment.

Celebrity culture is bound to produce spin-offs: not only execrable television shows celebrating celebrity, newspapers dominated by celebrities and government policy legitimised by celebrities rather than politicians, but inevitably the dark side of celebrity - celebrity crime and punishment.

We used to have celebrity criminals who achieved this status as a result of their criminal activity. Gangsters such as the Krays turned notoriety into celebrity by hanging round the rich, famous and impressionable. These days the media fascination is with those who achieve celebrity first, and then offend: millionaire footballers who brawl or drive when drunk; politicians, like Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer, whose vanity and sense of their own impregnability lead them to lie and to jail.

And just now there are the alleged or convicted sex offenders, Michael Jackson and Jonathan King respectively, who are filling the columns and airwaves. King, who discovered in his teens a talent for manipulation and self-promotion which could only lead to the music industry, was released from prison last week, paroled after serving half of a seven-year sentence for abusing teenage boys. The collision between hyper-ego (King) and meta-humbug (media) was fascinating to behold.

I knew King at university. He was called Kenneth then, but apart from that and less weight was just the same as he is now. He was entirely unself-conscious, relentlessly self-promoting, often funny and seldom boring. He was also unusual in that he had a hit single while still an undergraduate and had the first in-car stereo any of us had ever seen. It played 45rpm singles, almost always sung by King or his clients. We did not know, at university or afterwards, about his "other" life.

The tabloid press does disgust like King does self-promotion. The release last Tuesday from jail of a 60-year-old pop person unknown to the present or previous generation of record-buyers provoked a deluge of abuse. King, characteristically and doubtless as a result of much planning, got in the first word. He pranced exuberantly out of Maidstone prison, a walking, talking cacophony of hype, and was met by dozens of reporters and photographers. He promoted his new single, an Abba cover recorded before he entered prison. He talked of the "brilliance" of his time inside and his "innocence".

Television filmed him. Radio recorded him. The humbug got under way late on Tuesday night, when the Radio 5 Live phone-in played snatches of a King interview, before inviting guests to rubbish it, and then snatches of the new single, before inviting guests to rubbish it. It was a foretaste of what was to come.

Next morning, The Sun was disgusted. "There are few more disgusting sights than a gloating paedophile walking out of prison ... the scenes of King's triumphalism as the gates of Maidstone Prison swung open for him were enough to turn the strongest stomach." That was the leader. There were another two pages of disgust. And another leader and another page of "news" the next day.

The Mirror was disgusted. "If you see this vile man with anyone under 18, he could be thrown back in jail. Please do the nation a favour and call the police." That was the front page, and there was another page of the release from jail elsewhere.

The Express was disgusted. King was a "ranting sex fiend" and "pervert who has no shame". The leader said: "As his release makes Britain slightly less attractive, we must resolve that we shall never give this sick individual a hearing again." Two pages gave him such a "hearing".

Both the Express and the Mirror connected the release of King with the jailing of Linda Walker, the teacher who fired an air gun at youths who "terrorised" her family. The message was "paedophile freed as vandalism victim jailed". Almost as though King had not been inside for three years.

The "serious" papers also gave the release handsome coverage, with large pictures and plenty of King quotes. The Independent even published a leader, doing its own version of disgust - "deeply disturbing". The editorial continued: "It says something about our society when even the prison gates can be turned into a circus of publicity and shallow self-justification."

So across the media we have disgust for the self-publicist packaged in pages of publicity nobody compels the media to provide. We have every media outlet at the prison gates. We have calls not to buy the new King single, alongside the announcement of its existence and title. We have, surely, a King content with his morning's work.

It is not even as though he's Michael Jackson.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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