Not since Princess Diana died have the media gone so wild. The death of Michael Jackson has provoked much breathless coverage on the BBC and commercial channels, in the qualities and the tabloids. Every aspect of his childhood, career and dying has been exhaustively examined.
Here is a question. Can you, after all this mind-numbing coverage, name five songs sung by Jackson during his long career? I can’t. Even if you can, I wonder whether you could have done so two weeks ago. There will be a few expert Jackson fans who can tell us what he ate for breakfast in Neverland, but most of us didn’t know very much about him and, if we are honest, did not care all that much.
Ask your children, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, employees or boss – and I expect you’ll encounter a vague sense of goodwill towards Jackson but seldom outright enthusiasm. We may have known there had been some unresolved scandals involving children. We may have heard there were problems about money. We were probably aware that his face had been horribly disfigured by plastic surgery. He was a phenomenon of sorts, but hardly to be compared, in the annals of popular culture, with Elvis or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.
And yet BBC television bulletins on the day after his death gave much more than half their airtime to Michael Jackson. The BBC and Channel 4 threw together special programmes about his life. On Radio Four’s Today programme it was suggested that he ranked alongside Beethoven and Mozart. The qualities treated his passing as a major event. As for the red-tops, they were in Diana-mode, with The Sun leading the way, for the most part forgetting its former concerns about Jacko’s alleged paedophilia.
All this shows that there are no longer any British newspapers which are condescending towards supposed heroes of popular culture. The Washington Post and The New York Times carried news of Jackson’s death quite prominently, but retained a sense of proportion. Not so the hysterical London Times, which covered the whole of its front page with the story, and the following day produced a special 16-page supplement.
I acknowledge it was a fascinating story. Jackson had an interesting and sometimes tragic life, and died in mysterious circumstances. He was obviously a hugely talented man.
But was he a great one? One might expect The Sun and the Daily Mirror to go over the top, but when the BBC and The Times and The Guardian respond with the same sense of awed reverence that they displayed nearly 45 years ago when Winston Churchill – a truly great man – died, one begins to fear for our culture.
I realise the media are desperate to connect with “yoof”, but Jackson was hardly a hero to the young, who, in my experience, were rather bemused by the hysteria. I don’t believe many Times readers yearned for a special supplement about the man. I even question whether Sun readers, who were forced to endure Jackson “splashes” every day last week, wanted so much wall-to-wall coverage. The paper privately claims a 10 per cent lift in circulation on the day after Jackson’s death, but by the middle of last week the effect was dying out. Other newspapers claim much smaller, and less long-lasting, increases.
Here was a story which newspapers felt they could do well. They could throw the kitchen sink at it. They could leave bloggers far in their wake. The trouble is that in all their excitement some of them cared more about Wacko Jacko than their readers did.
BBC Persian is subversively filling a gap in the market
Iranian politicians accuse Britain of inciting protests, and describe this country as “Little Satan”. How we scoff at their naivety! The idea that we would think of destabilising Iran seems ridiculous. But that is exactly what we are doing. The weapon in our hands is truth – or propaganda, depending on your point of view.
It is called BBC Persian Television, which has been broadcasting eight hours a day of “news and information” since January. It is funded by a £15m-a-year grant from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and was announced by the British Government in December 2006.
Though BBC World Service radio has been broadcasting in the Farsi language since 1941, television is considered a much more powerful medium. That is why the Government, confronted by an Iranian administration that refuses to halt or even moderate its nuclear programme, decided to fund BBC Persian Television.
I have no doubt it is objective and truthful by the standards of Iranian-controlled state broadcasters. That is the point. The Government knows that in an authoritarian state such as Iran there is an enormous appetite for honest reporting amongst ordinary people, and it is not fanciful to suppose that the more Iranians are aware of what is really going on in their country, the more likely it is that they will try to do something about it.
So the Iranian government is right. Britain is inciting protests. The effect of BBC Persian Television is bound be destabilising, which is exactly what the Foreign Office intended. It is childish to pretend otherwise. We can no longer send gunboats to far-flung places, but we can bombard the people who live there with the truth. The best way of averting a dangerous, nuclear Iran is to install another government, and that, by the only means at our disposal, is what we are trying to do.
Rebekah and her odd French connection
Now that Rebekah Wade – or Rebekah Brooks, as we must learn to call her – is chief executive of News International, she will naturally amend her entry in Who’s Who. When she does so, she may choose to reconsider one or two details.
In her current entry, Rebekah claims to have been educated at the Sorbonne, the famous university in Paris. This is true only in a very narrow sense. She did not study for a degree at the Sorbonne, far less get one, and it would have been very difficult to have done so without being fully bilingual.
Rebekah merely attended a language course at the university lasting a few months, which implies no great distinction, and requires no academic qualifications to speak of. Many young English people do so every year. I enrolled at Grenoble University to brush up my French, but I cannot pretend, in any meaningful sense, to have attended that institution.
As long as Rebekah was editor of The Sun, her claim to have been educated at the Sorbonne could be regarded as a harmless jeu d’esprit. Now that she directs a great publishing company, she should perhaps choose a stricter version of the truth.