The most lucrative job in Britain today must be that of the paparazzi photographer. The man who captured Madonna at the car-wash is probably renting the next house to Tony Blair in Barbados with the proceeds. Once derided by their prey, celebrity photographers now feed one of the most successful trends in publishing in recent years.
It seems we can't buy enough magazines about the the famous and quasi-famous. An increasing number of us need a weekly fix of mundane snapshots of well- known people doing boring things such as putting their shopping in the car or taking the dog for a walk. Circulation figures published last week show that OK! and Hello!, once the brand leaders of the genre, have been toppled from their pedestals (suffering losses in sales of up to 36 per cent) by a clutch of new arrivals, the next even more brash than its predecessor. This is a thriving market. The combined circulations of Now, Heat, OK!, Hello!, New! and Closer is almost a staggering 2.5 million copies a week.
I admit to a secret admiration for Heat, surely the most stylish and witty of the bunch. Its combination of fashion boo-boos and witty headlines always enliven a dreary train journey. And I thank them for bringing one of Geri Halliwell's most fabulously fatuous statements to my attention recently: "I believe in something greater than myself. I call that force God." I've had it stuck on the fridge door ever since, just in case I ever get up in the morning and think for a moment that Geri Halliwell is our spiritual leader: I'm glad she's made that clear.
When the celebrity magazine market was dominated by OK! and Hello! back in 1998, the world was a far more respectful and gorgeous place. They generally featured people we had actually heard of, allowing us into their glamorous homes to gawp at their lavish kitchen units and vast brass beds. These days, the cast list of the latest celebrity magazines could come from Mars if you didn't tune in to reality TV or the soaps. These are people known only by their first names, be it Phil, Jade, Tracey or Robbie. And what sells is the unguarded snapshot, the long-lens image captured from a passing car or boat, of someone well-known looking just generally, well, normal.
I have never seen Big Brother's Jade on television, but I do know that for many women she represents the triumph of the ordinary. She proves that anyone can be an achiever of sorts. Almost all these magazines carried pictures last week of Jade putting her baby in her car. Heat revealed that Donatella Versace has possibly the wrinkliest knees since Guy the Gorilla, and much space was taken up with pictures of a dent in the car of Jack Ryder, whoever he may be. Celebrity magazines also specialise in what I call "psychic" journalism. Not a week passes when they don't publish a revelation about what is troubling one of their stars. Last week many editorials revealed that Becks "misses" Posh and is telephoning her "20 times a day". Of course, this is harmless drivel. I'm pleased to see the end of an era when famous people extracted huge sums from OK! and Hello! for access to their weddings and then babbled patronising twaddle about their happiness over 24 pages. When I pay £1.45 for Heat I know what I'm getting.
My problems start when I turn to the Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet newspaper which aspires to be taken seriously, and read a ghastly new feature called "Tatworld", chronicling tabloid culture. Seeing Darren Day and Posh in a skimpy vest and knickers among coverage of the Hutton Inquiry and the arrival of the US militia in Liberia is somewhat bizarre. And this is the paper that denounced my editorship of this paper as a descent into triviality. Like many newspapers, it is suffering huge losses. And so it has turned to the celebrity bandwagon to attract female readers and boost its circulation. Not a day passes without Jerry Hall, Jade Jagger, Kate Winslet or Laura Bailey featuring next to what I call "evening primrose oil" journalism - weird massages or the latest diets. Tatworld proves that the Telegraph is desperate, and it shows.
The women who do
Of far more interest to Telegraph readers is any debate about how to deal with domestic staff, and a new TV series, Channel 4's Masters and Servants, has just started (made by the team that brought us the gloriously grisly Wife Swap and Faking It) in which toffs and common people swap roles. This is another example of programme makers milking a genre until we are heartily sick of it - and once again emphasising that 21st-century Britain is still thoroughly obsessed with class. But whether Mandy from the checkout at Tesco can cope with the subtleties required to boss domestics about is irrelevant - the series unwittingly has focused on an important issue for many women today, and that is how to treat and what to pay the other women they employ so they can go out to work. The American author Barbara Ehrenreich had an international bestseller with Nickel and Dimed, her tale of a year spent working in menial jobs. Now she has followed it with Global Woman, which looks at the international trade in lowly paid female workers.
In Edinburgh last week she made a controversial speech claiming that the retention of a servant class breeds racism, because in the US at least, most domestic workers are black. This is unpalatable but true, and she traces the rise of the new servant culture back to the 1980s when educated, affluent women stopped doing household chores and started paying other women to do them. Men also stopped doing any housework as the new servants took over. She rightly says that feminism has only benefited the 30 per cent of middle-class women; the others still work in stereotypical female jobs for low pay. And as migrant female workers flock to the West to be cleaners, nurses and sex-trade workers, what has happened to the children and the families they have left behind? They, ultimately, are the losers.
I have never been comfortable in dealings with cleaners, putting it down to my working-class background. But Barbara Ehrenriech's assertion that by not doing my own housework, I am a traitor to my sex, I find hard to stomach. For many women, part-time work such as cleaning is a boon, but only if they are paid more than the pathetic minimum wage, and their employers treat them with dignity.
Finally, you know it's high summer when marine life enters the news pages. We've seen giant squid washed up on remote beaches, and now halibut are suffering from sunburn. Up on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland, fish farms are facing a crisis as the relentless rays of the sun beat down on cages of halibut. Temporary mesh screens have been installed to protect them. What next? Sunhats for sardines?Reuse content