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Michael Williams: Readers' editor

Celebrity soap opera is a snapshot of society

Schadenfreude. Horrid word, isn't it? And delight in taking pleasure from other people's misfortunes is one of the less attractive sides of the British press. Here's reader June Underwood from Rowley Regis: "I was impressed by your special issue of The New Review on 'rehab' last week, and was touched by the personal stories of people trying to overcome their addiction. But I was appalled by a jokey headline on a report about Britney Spears on page 23 of your main paper: 'Britney Spears, mayhem addict, kept in hospital as her life implodes again'.

"Don't you realise that this young woman is also an addict? And why publish a set of humiliating pictures – obviously taken when she had lost control? This hardly chimes in with your Mental Health Campaign – which I thought was aimed at improving the image of the mentally ill in the media."

There's a facile answer, Ms Underwood, which many publications trot out to answer complaints like yours. It is that people in the public eye must take the rough with the smooth. They benefit from the free PR when things are going well and so must roll with the punches when they're not. It's all part of the unwritten celebrity contract with the media – publicity on the way up, and a kicking on the way down.

Can you honestly feel sorry for Chris Tarrant or Mark Oaten, when they were exposed after cheating on their wives? Did you feel sad when you read last week that Victoria Beckham had been voted one of the world's worst-dressed women? Or empathise with President Nicolas Sarkozy when he complained about the Sunday papers after opinion polls showed the French public was growing tired of his cavortings with model Carla Bruni? And you could argue that Britney Spears collaborated with the pictures we used last week, which had already been published widely across the media, on the grounds that even bad publicity is better than none at all.

But there's a difference. Puffing up celebrities and dragging them down again is not our style of journalism. And Britney Spears is not the average celeb – she is a young mother of two, who has manifestly suffered a mental breakdown.

Even so, I don't think we need to take out a subscription to the Society section of 'The Guardian' here. It seems to me proper that we should continue to chronicle events in the life of Britney Spears – and Amy Winehouse, whose breakdown seems even rawer and more tragic since it has taken place so very publicly in front of British audiences. It would be ludicrous (and pompous) to pretend we weren't interested in such human stories. But we must also remember our responsibility not to descend to the level of the bear pit or the stone-throwers in the asylum.

William Leith put it eloquently in his introduction to last week's confessions in The New Review: "As a society, we are behaving just like a soap opera. That is why we are so interested in the soap opera that is celebrity rehab... As we watch the juggernaut of self-destructive appetite race downhill, we see ourselves – the self-destructive trajectory of the human race."


Message Board: Blogs: a waste of time or a forum for debate?

When Janet Street-Porter attacked the "mediocrity" of the blogosphere, she came rapidly under online fire, but some thought she had a point, and said so...


There's more great blogging going on for free than there is [information] in the papers. My interest is design. You won't see any journalist carrying the really interesting stuff, but the hundreds of blogs are alive to what people want.

David Firth

As a blogger myself, I think Janet Street-Porter has got it about right. But don't throw the baby out with the bath water. There are just a few blogs that are worth reading and for which the advent of the 'blogsphere' is worthwhile.


Janet Street-Porter obviously spends no time in the blogosphere, or she would know where the cutting edge is. It's like listening to Anthony Trollope saying the telephone will never take off.


I could show JSP 100 blogs with no trouble at all that are providing more interesting content than the national media. Blogging is cumulative. You build up a library that no one else can touch.

Richard Earley

We like blogs because we get to see stuff working, for real, here and now. We get to watch the metaphorical marketing ink travel through the capillaries, which is very unlike the murky, advertising-centric marketing world.


It is real-life interaction from real-life people. It is a pity that highly paid journalists can only display their ignorance by showing contempt for that which they do not, or perhaps have no desire to, understand.

Rob Parsons

If JSP doesn't like them, she doesn't have to read them. She sounds like one of those grumpy old men, looking for something else to complain about.

Robert Wharmsby

I agree absolutely with Janet Street-Porter's sentiments on this particular subject.

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