Stephen Glover: This celebration of ordinariness by the media leaves me bemused
What goes around comes around: Sarah Sands is back at the Standard
Monday 23 February 2009
This week I have to write about Jade Goody. You may not, gentle reader, be wholly sure who she is. I certainly am not. Despite being a prodigious daily consumer of newsprint, I have for the most part managed to avoid her, being only vaguely aware of her alleged stupidity, and the love-hate affair she has enjoyed with the “red-top” tabloids which, despite her ordinariness, or rather because of it, made her into a star.
Now that she is reportedly dying of cervical cancer, it is no longer possible to side-step her. Almost every day she stares out from the front page of The Sun or the Daily Mirror, and on Sundays from the News of the World or The People, with her large eyes and bald head, like a stunned child who has received an unexpected punishment. It seems creepy to want to read about her on the verge of death, and I can hardly understand those columnists who write about her with a sense of presumed intimacy, as they might about a friend.
There she is, though, and she has spread out from her natural home of the red tops and trash television into the mainstream news and the respectable “prints” such as The Guardian, which even devoted a reverential leader to her last week. Apart from a sense of distaste at being invited to sit at the deathbed of a stranger, I don’t have strong feelings about her one way or the other.
Nor do I blame her for making money out of her death by selling the rights to photographs of her wedding yesterday to OK! magazine for a reputed £700,000, as well as having a television deal with Living TV. If media organisations are prepared to pay her these large sums, why shouldn’t she take their money? Having had a pinched and unhappy childhood, she wants the best for her two sons so that they can go to private school and get the kind of education she didn’t.
Let’s not be hard on Jade Goody. It’s the reaction of millions of my fellow countrymen that surprises me. For we can’t pin all the blame on the media. The Sun and Daily Mirror claim 12 million readers a day between them, amounting to about a quarter of the adult population of this country. They would not carry pictures of the poor woman day after day if they were not reasonably certain that their readers wanted them. Many millions of people like reading about Jade.
Why? Before the last war papers like the Daily Mirror ran stories about the goings-on of the more glamorous members of aristocracy. As they faded from our national life, they were replaced by film stars and, more recently, by pop singers and sportsmen. Such people were often good-looking, and they all excelled in some way.
No one had thought, until Jade Goody came along, of making a star out of someone who was neither particularly good-looking nor remotely distinguished in any field. Some of her defenders in the media say that she is a nice woman – evidently basing this judgement on her behaviour on Channel 4’s Big Brother, which launched her career – but niceness was not previously considered a sufficient qualification for appearing every day in the newspapers. Jade is utterly ordinary.
And that seems to be why other ordinary people – if any human being can really be described as ordinary – like reading about her. She is a validation of ordinariness. There is no need to look up to Jade. Her “success” is a kind of reassurance, a proof that you don’t have to have any special qualities to reach that state of secular grace which we know as celebrity. Any of us can be famous. Any of us can appear on the front page of The Sun.
Eleven and a half years ago, aided and abetted by the tabloid press, half the nation went into convulsions over the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. Though she was beautiful and a member of the Royal Family, she was in other ways ordinary, and not obviously much brighter than Jade. She was appropriated by her mourners as the “People’s Princess”. Jade Goody has not stirred emotions to the same extent, and her death, if and when it comes, will hardly be the cause of national sorrowing, but she has, believe it or not, touched millions of hearts.
Gordon Brown, who probably knows even less about Jade than I do, feels obliged to pay obeisance to her, and Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, hurriedly bends the curfew rules so that her fiancé, Jack Tweed, can be a full participant at the nuptials. Jade Goody is powerful – more powerful in her death than she ever was in her life – and statesmen have to bow to her.
I am happy to accept that she is not a monster, and I even rather admire her expert manipulation, or that of her advisers, of the media. But I hate this mass worship of the ordinary. And it seems to me that intelligent columnists who romanticise her life and invest her death with heroic significance are writing sentimental nonsense. What has already happened is bad enough, but I fear it may be only the beginning, and that it may all end with even the supposedly serious media forcing us to witness her death.
Sarah Sands’ appointment as deputy editor of the London Evening Standard will hearten those worried about the newspaper. In different circumstances Ms Sands, who is an old friend of mine, might have reasonably hoped to be its editor.
As Max Hastings’ tenure in that role ground towards its conclusion, Sarah Sands made little secret of her ambition to succeed him. In 2002, the prize went instead to Veronica Wadley who, it transpired, inherited a chalice which, if not actually poisoned, was not exactly wholesome. Sarah was eventually translated from the deputy editorship of The Daily Telegraph to the editorship of The Sunday Telegraph, where she was foolishly defenestrated after six months without having had the chance to prove herself. She became editor of Reader’s Digest last year.
A return to the Standard, where she served as features editor in the 1990s, hardly seemed possible until the Russian oligarch, Alexander Lebedev, bought it a few weeks ago, installing Geordie Greig as editor. Ms Sands certainly knows where all the levers and switches are, and has presumably been hired by Mr Greig to bring élan and mischief to the paper.
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