Terence Blacker: A caring celebrity is no better than anyone else

In a recent poll of effectiveness, Jamie Oliver gained over twice as many votes as Tony Blair
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Who could be surprised that, when the Hansard Society recently conducted a poll asking people which public figures were likely to get things done, Jamie Oliver polled more than twice as many votes as Tony Blair? The public has been brainwashed so relentlessly with the lie that a caring celebrity represents all that is good and selfless in the modern world, while a politician is invariably bad, greedy and incompetent, that stupid answers to an admittedly stupid question were inevitable. Of course a chef who now and then becomes involved in a single-issue campaign will be more socially engaged and effective than the Prime Minister: it goes without saying.

One of Jamie Oliver's achievements in the past has been to reveal the scandalously poor quality of schoolchildren's meals. Now, almost accidentally, he has contributed to their knowledge of the world with the help of a "stupid cow" from the BBC. The description of Radio Five's Victoria Derbyshire was from Jamie himself and was accompanied for good measure by the phrase "a stupid, cynical bitch".

During a round of interviews which had been set up to promote the new Cornish branch of Fifteen, a restaurant where the young and unemployed are to be trained as chefs, Derbyshire had suggested that some in Jamie's kitchen might take their qualification to London, doing little for the regeneration of the area. With true professionalism, the chef politely denied the charge while on air and kept his comments about the interview until later. Unfortunately a group of media students who happened to be studying the occasion still had their tape recorders running.

But it was not Oliver's rude remarks about Victoria Derbyshire that provided a useful lesson for children (an interviewer of celebrities who lacks cynicism is in the wrong job) so much as the more general comment he made later, this time on the record. "I'm pretty good at writing cookbooks, I do a bit of decent telly now and again," he said, "but everything that surrounds it is sort of full of bollocks really."

Here, surely, is a profound truth about modern life. It is what somebody does which matters. The rest, the fuzzy, useless stuff that increasing adheres to it - image, presentation, publicity, spin, cheesy smiles and warm words - is, as the chef so wisely says, sort of full of bollocks.

The idea that action is more important than the image it casts is less obvious than it might seem. A generation is growing up for whom the ersatz and the fake, the confections worked over by hard, money-driven marketing people, have more meaning than the real thing. Go into any classroom and it will not be the achievements of, say, Jamie Oliver that will impress the children, but his fame. In fact, getting things done has never seemed less important; it is being seen, being a celebrity (by whatever method) that really matters.

The world has become PR-shaped. Technology has made village gossip global. Because publicity, which was once meant to be the servant of action, is now very often its master, image has become more important than reality. If you listen to the titans of the PR world, an Alastair Campbell or a Max Clifford, you will hear that new confidence in their voices. They have the key to the kingdom; they know how to make something look better, or worse, than it really is.

There are serious dangers here. When a society's standards are as vapid and money-led as that of an ad man, the public is likely to become supine and cynical. People really do believe that a cheery young chef with a streak of professionally useful idealism is contributing more to the world than a politician. Voting in elections becomes less important than phoning in for Jamie's favourite charity for Comic Relief.

These standards of the adult world seep downwards to future generations. One of the principal effects of Jamie Oliver's campaign against bad food and obesity has been an explosion in gyms which have been designed specifically for children. Five-year-olds are pumping iron. Exercise bikes and rowing machines have been scaled down to primary school size. The solipsistic image-obsession of the grown-up world has entered the classroom while for many, the usual, social forms of taking exercise - playing sport, walking, running - have lost their appeal.

For some time, the Government has been concerned to introduce a moral, civic element to the school curriculum. There has been talk of introducing lessons on citizenship and on parenting. Jamie Oliver has now, with his customary wisdom, identified another area where children need to be prepared for the adult world and for the fake, seductive allure of PR values that it offers. Bollocks lessons (the name of the subject might need a little work) should be a matter of priority.

Terblacker@aol.com

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