The Media Column: Being let down by the limelight: the downside of courting fame

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The Independent Online

Whether we offer them the brown envelope, the week on an island in the sun or the trusty "chance to tell your side of the story", media folk have devised a host of methods to tempt the public into their world. Newspaper hacks, radio producers, documentary researchers and gameshow makers are continually cutting deals with individuals to get them to give up the scoop interview or make a fool of themselves for the amusement of a mass audience.

Whether we offer them the brown envelope, the week on an island in the sun or the trusty "chance to tell your side of the story", media folk have devised a host of methods to tempt the public into their world. Newspaper hacks, radio producers, documentary researchers and gameshow makers are continually cutting deals with individuals to get them to give up the scoop interview or make a fool of themselves for the amusement of a mass audience.

Those that agree to play ball risk a great deal. By speaking out, they could become a pariah in their community or workplace, jeopardising their future career. By going on a television show, they are dicing with the possibility of a humiliation that will accompany them on every shopping-trip to the high street for years to come.

So why on earth do they do it?

Many people leap at the chance to embrace their 15 minutes of fame. For some, it is all about the money, and a growing industry of agents and publicists will negotiate a fee with the media on their behalf, whether it be in cash or benefits in kind.

But there are others with more altruistic motives, driven by a desire for the truth to come out. One of the lasting changes that will surely come from the Hutton inquiry is in the public's interaction with the media. People cannot have failed to see how a distinguished scientist and family man was brought down by his willingness quietly to engage with journalists from broadcasting and print. David Kelly appeared to enjoy those briefings and took part in them for the most laudable motives (so that the public got the facts), but no one can have failed to see the tragic consequences.

In truth, a single media organisation can give a source or subject few guarantees of protection, either from rival papers and broadcasters or from other parties. When Mordechai Vanunu disclosed Israel's nuclear secrets to The Sunday Times in the 1980s, the paper could offer him only the sanctuary of a London hotel room, from where he was lured by Mossad agents, kidnapped and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Engaging with the media can be a dangerous thing, and no doubt potential whistleblowers have noted this and other similar cases and held their breath, probably to the detriment of society. Certainly, in these publicity-conscious times - when every organisation has the means to trace a rogue e-mail or copied document - it is rare for material to be genuinely leaked, as opposed to planted by a director of communications.

But there is still one part of the media that appears to be beyond suspicion. Reality TV, in spite of all the predictions of its imminent demise, continues to obsess the nation and entice tens of thousands of would-be participants.

Laura Jane Foley, a Cambridge University student, was supposed to be one of the lucky ones when she landed a spot on Faking It, the show that won Channel 4 the Rose d'Or in Montreux last year. The idea was that Ms Foley, a choral singer, would be trained to pass herself off as a rock chick.

It didn't work. Ms Foley told me last week she had endured "a horrible, horrible experience", claiming that she had been stereotyped as a posh gal who would not listen to the advice of her rock mentors. Shortly after watching the show go out, she said: "I was absolutely in tears. It was a real blow to see how people would perceive me."

But Stephen Lambert, head of the programme-makers, RDF, was astonished. "I think she is disappointed that she didn't succeed and she looks a bit wet," he said. "The name of the game is that you agree to be in the programme and surrender control to the mentors."

On Sunday, the most controversial reality programme yet will show six young men competing for the attentions of a Mexican beauty called Miriam (below), who - they were not told - was a pre-op transsexual. So distraught were the men when they found out, they sued the programme-makers, Brighter Pictures, and the broadcaster, Sky One. All the men have now agreed to let the show go to air, having been paid a reported £125,000 each to soothe their wounded pride.

But according to the show's producer, Remy Blumenfeld, the men had joked on camera that the "surprise" they had been warned of was that Miriam was a man.

Media professionals must take responsibility for their work, but in an age when we are all media consumers, there is surely an onus on the public to show a bit of savvy as to the possible consequences of their actions. "To be a contestant on a reality show," says Blumenfeld, "it probably helps to watch some reality television."

i.burrell@independent.co.uk

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