DJ Taylor: Secretive celebrities are always with us

The superinjunction is just part of a long tradition of hypocrisy in public figures, and why doesn't the BBC pay (me) more?

Share
Related Topics

GK Chesterton died as recently as 1936, but to read Ian Ker's new life of him (GK Chesterton: A Biography) is to be reminded of the enormous gap that separates the world of a century ago from our own.

One of Chesterton's many attractions to the modern reader is that he was a genuine democrat, rather than a pretend one, who believed not only in giving ordinary people the vote but – an altogether different thing – taking the trouble to investigate their opinions on the great issues of the day.

This naturally led him to prefer what he called "vulgar comic papers" to high-brow journalism on the grounds that the former "are so subtle and true that they are even prophetic". It seemed obvious to him – a really startling deduction, this, for 1908 – that "the literature which the people studied" was much more interesting than the kind of sociological literature "which studies the people". An historian could gauge the social tenor of Great War-era England better from a copy of Tit-Bits than some early numbers of the New Statesman and Nation.

Bracing as all this is, it is worth noting that it was written when there was still such a thing as popular culture, and before the mass-cultural elephant got its foot firmly on the average person's neck. And so the "wisdom" Chesterton detects in street-level humour comes sui generis rather than being imposed from on high. Given the infallible optimism of the Edwardian democrats, you wonder what they would have made of the social arrangements of the early 21st century. How, for example, would Chesterton, a defender of extended pub opening hours, have felt had he been set down in the Prince of Wales Road, Norwich, at 3am on a Sunday, or, as an advocate of the people's right to enjoy themselves, contemplated the zombie-strewn panorama of the average Game store? You feel he might, at the very least, have diagnosed a serious disconnect between what people want and what the people's manipu- lators think they ought to have.

***

To read the accounts of Tuesday night's last-minute scramble to reach the Olympics ticket ballot – a feeding frenzy so intense that the deadline had to be put back from midnight to 1amWednesday – was to be struck by the the stranglehold that technology exerts over us, and its denial of choice to the substantial part of the population that disdains its blandishments. For a start, applications had to be made online, which excludes something like a fifth of the community. Then again, attempts to reach the ticket ballot had to be supported by a Visa card. Fine if you have this amenity, but a serious impediment if you don't.

It could be argued, of course, that any non-browser or card-holder could surmount this obstacle by enlisting better-placed friends. On the other hand, why should an event supported by the taxpayer and designed to be as "inclusive" as possible be administered solely to suit the technological convenience of the organisers? Would setting up an office to process applications by cheque have cost so much? Even now, one nervously awaits the headline announcing that the site has been hacked and six million sets of personal data are floating around in cyberspace.

***

In a week enlivened by news of "super-injunctions", and Andrew Marr's former dalliance, it was hard to ignore one or two of the historical parallels. You are a public figure of the late 1850s, let us say, anxious to keep details of your extra-marital doings out of the newspapers. How do you go about it? The answer is that, by and large, editors will do the work for you, and should any injurious gossip look as if it were about to leak out, well-situated friends will queue up to fight proxy battles on your behalf.

This, at any rate, is what happened in the celebrated "Garrick Club Affair" of 1858, when Dickens, enraged by his arch-rival Thackeray's (inadvertent) blowing of the gaff on his relationship with Ellen Ternan, embarked on a war of attrition that only ended a few months before Thackeray's death in 1863. The thought that a public which admired a series of novels built on the sanctity of marriage might be entitled to hear about their author's dishonouring of his marital vows seems not to have occurred to Dickens, just as it never seems to occur to the modern celebrity who engages Mishcon de Reya "for the sake of the children" that publicity is a two-edged sword.

The odd thing about this reluctance of well-known people to call a spade anything other than a large blunt instrument for shovelling dirt is that it exists at almost every level of intellectual debate. Browsing through Anthony Powell's journals the other day, I came upon a dilemma that exercised several of Powell's friends in the mid-1980s. Should they release the "deliberately spiteful" letters written by Ian Fleming's wife, Ann, to the man compiling a volume of her correspondence? But surely, if Mrs Fleming wrote spiteful letters then, to be truly representative of her no doubt complex personality, a collection ought to contain some of them? But there are probably still Elvis fans who refuse to believe that the great man took drugs, gorged on junk food, and died on the toilet.

***

There was an affecting story on the front of last Wednesday's Daily Telegraph about the BBC's difficulties in recruiting the high-calibre personnel it needs to steer the corporation through the choppy waters of government cuts and satellite competition. According to the Director-General, Mark Thompson, some posts at the £400,000 per annum level are unfilled and "remuneration is an issue".

My first thought was: how much money do you need to lead the luxurious life style which senior media figures seem to regard as a birthright? My second thought was that it is a pity that the corporation's freehandedness with executive salaries couldn't be extended to some of its output. A morning's filming for BBC4 might bring in £200 – not too bad on paper, but ignoring travel time and the substantial amount of research that is likely to be involved. As for radio, one sometimes ends up emailing the producer for whom one has laboured with the plaintive enquiry: "Will I get paid for this?". As a general rule, the parts of the BBC that make the best programmes are those with the least money. At least the ones that make the worst programmes look as if they are suffering the biggest cuts.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Theresa May  

Democracy and the police: a system in crisis

Nigel Morris
 

Mary Beard has taught us all a lesson in how to deal with online bullies

Louise Scodie
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone