David Aaronovitch: Why do we want to own celebrities?

'We treat the famous with a mixture of reverence and brutality. We build them up, praise them, scrutinise them and destroy them'
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The Independent Online

It's a total mystery. Why on earth would an attention-seeking lunatic murder a popular TV personality? (see pages 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 10, top columnist Linda Lee-Sarler, page 20, and "We Say", page 22). We are told that Barry George, convicted on Monday of the killing of Jill Dando was "obsessed with fame". Well that would make him bonkers then. The rest of us are wholly devoted to the discussion of whether or not we can import some of the health funding ideas that are currently in use on the Continent.

Save for a last-minute revelation by Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague that, yes, he sent a hitman to shoot the attractive presenter, we can assume that Ms Dando died because she was famous. She had made the transition from being her own property to being that of everyone who wanted to claim a bit of her. Not because she was in any way outstanding (though I am told, by people who knew her, that she was pleasant, modest and professional), but because she appeared on telly a fair bit, and telly is the great creator of celebrity. It is unlikely that anyone will stalk Julian Barnes. No one wants to kill Beryl Bainbridge.

I have some difficulties here. To me Tolstoy is a celebrity, or Fidel Castro or Norman Mailer. OK, or Nicole Kidman. Yet none of these sat in the boxes in Celebrity Squares. Those were occupied by the cathode-ray space-fillers, the here-today gone-tomorrow cheeky chappies of minor sitcom or soap opera. I hadn't heard of most of them and now they have departed. But in those days, only a dozen years ago, or so, all we asked of them was that they turn up, smile a bit and fade away.

Not any more. Now, when someone courts fame, they court possible disaster. The new rules are that you cannot just turn your face to the camera and show your best side, perform and then slope off, close your doors and be private. Now we treat the famous with a mixture of reverence and brutality. We build them up, praise them, scrutinise them and destroy them. We make them unable to tell where their real selves end and the manufactured entities begin. We have no mercy, we show no shame. And it is precisely because many modern celebrities are no more special than the rest of us and are so anxious about it, that we feel justified in treating them with such contempt: we made 'em and we can unmake 'em. You can't say that about Tolstoy or Fidel.

And, as is often pointed out, the celebrities are themselves complicit. The late Paula Yates both needed and loathed fame. Many of the precariously famous ride the OK! and Hello! swings but cannot take the tabloid roundabouts. A lot was made of the fact that, not long before she was murdered, Jill Dando was engaged in a mild change of image. She put aside the bright pleated frocks and was photographed in a leather mini-skirt and, in that last Radio Times, in a black leather jumpsuit. After the murder there was a slew of rubbishy stories in some papers hinting at a dark, troubled love life.

Perhaps the most alarming recent example of this complicity was this week's story of the "ginger binger", Chris Evans, and how he lost his job at Virgin Radio. Evans is a talented broadcaster, whose driven personality and early fame appear to have turned him into a basket case. Evans was photographed, you may recall, wheeling a truckload of alcohol out of his local booze emporium when he was actually supposed to be laid up in bed. Virgin sacked him. But how did the photographer get to be there? Who tipped her the wink? Some have speculated that it was Evan's own PR man, Matthew Freud. Evans, it is said, wanted out of breakfast radio, and discovered a spectacular form of exit. If that's true, it makes virtually every newspaper in Britain an accomplice, a dupe of one star's publicity machine.

Celebrity isn't new, of course it's not. For Diana's funeral read Eva Peron's, or – even earlier – Rudolf Valentino's. In 1926 Lady Ravensdale was in California as Valentino (who had died at 31) was interred. "The streets were lined with thousands of hysterical weeping people," she wrote. "As we reached the mausoleum ... an aeroplane flew low over our heads dropping thousands of red roses." She went on to recount how Valentino's "fiancée", the actress Pola Negri, threw herself across the coffin in extravagant grief. Hollywood insiders claimed that Negri's publicist had been working overtime in the period between the death and the funeral to try to establish an engagement that had probably never happened.

Earlier there had been a near riot as 100,000 people had tried to catch a glimpse of Valentino's corpse as it lay in state. Just two years later there wasn't even enough lingering sentiment to build a promised memorial. Now does that remind you of anything?

But even if modern celebrity began, as some claim, with the early Hollywood stars and especially with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, its scope has widened enormously since then, and the language of celebrity has come to dominate our discourse. Why does anyone CARE about the sex life of a minor soap actor? Or about the drugs problem of a DJ? Or want to look at the nipples of a one-hit pop star, as glimpsed grainily through the phallic long lens of a paparazzo's camera? How has it become possible for so much newsprint to be used up in detailing the tedious shaggings and minor criminalities of a charmless Chelsea fan with a silly hat and a sillier nickname? Part of the answer is that we are living through a period of maddening media competition, with ever more papers, radio stations, websites and TV networks chasing the same number of viewers and the same advertising revenues, like tigers round a tree. And they've all got to be involved in creating and recreating the national story.

But this doesn't explain why our national stories have to be such crappy ones. The popular media is just Ritalin to help us with our National Attention Deficit Disorder. We cannot concentrate on anything for too long, so they need stories that are undemanding, every-day and "just like our own". Far from feeling constrained, we can celebrate our own witlessness together. The American writer, Jay McInerney, said recently: "I've enjoyed a little celebrity in my time and I have ogled any number of models, indulged in small talk about Brad and Gwyneth. But at least I hate myself in the morning. I fear as a nation (he was talking about the US) we're losing our sense of shame in this regard."

That was it. My mother brought me up with these bourgeois precepts: Don't make personal remarks. Don't point. Don't pry. Don't be a nosey-parker. It's none of your business. It was vulgar and rude to take too obvious an interest in the private lives of others, even if one let oneself down sometimes. Those restraints have all but gone now, and their absence means different things to different people.