Terence Blacker: Why is the BBC playing the fame game?

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The Independent Online

Those who have been baffled by revelations of the impressive salary levels enjoyed by senior BBC broadcasters, news of which has caused much huffing and puffing in the usual quarters, could do worse than study the output of the corporation's rival television channel, ITV.

On the day this week when Peugeot-Citroën announced the closure of their Ryton factory, with the potential loss of 2,300 jobs, ITV led its morning news with a rather different story. Tom Cruise had become a father for the first time.

Not many people, I would guess, will have found it particularly remarkable that the somewhat predictable fact of an actor's heavily pregnant wife giving birth was deemed to be of greater interest, perhaps even more important, than a development in the manufacturing sector which will affect many lives and the economy as a whole. Fame addiction has so infected the culture that nothing, when it comes to public affairs and the way they are covered in the media, can now be surprising.

What used to be a pitiable minority interest, an excessive dependence on gossip surrounding public figures, is now a general malaise; the Heat culture has turned us all into gossip junkies. A few hundred people, who happen to have the right face, body, voice, agent, luck or just possibly talent to be famous, now have a secondary role, above and beyond what they do for a career; in their private lives, they have become emblems of a brighter, better, sexier, more moneyed world in which their fans can share vicariously and from a distance.

In the celebrity world, people are more beautiful, affairs more intense, heartbreak more searing, success and failure more extreme. Having been fed a glossy version of the lives of the famous, buffed up by the PR industry and an adoring press, the public have recently begun to treat celebrities as people with whom they have a personal connection. They are referred to, unblushingly and as a matter of course, by their first name. When Tom and Katie became parents, their news was both public and intimate.

Under these bizarre cultural circumstances, the business of broadcasting changes. It is no longer enough for a political commentator to be astute, for an interviewer to ask passably intelligent questions, for a DJ to provide amiable company between records. In order to compete in this new, fame-crazed world, they need to make that all-important personal connection with the audience. Jeremy Paxman becomes a frightening older brother, Jonathan Ross the loveable family black sheep, Esther Rantzen the slightly embarrassing aunt who turns up at the wrong moment.

Nobody really knows what it is that confers stardust on these people. Why Paxman and not Esler? What has Ross got that Danny Baker has not? One might as well ask how it is that a dull, plain nonentity like Jade Goody becomes a national figure. It is all a mystery.

But, for the BBC, fame-addiction presents a choice. It can behave as a serious-minded public service broadcaster, ignore the fame addiction and watch its audience figures plummet, or it can compete in the market-place and pay its own celebrities the going rate.

Of course, whether it takes the road of virtue or of populism, it will be criticised. Personally, I would prefer our state broadcaster to have its own power base and that depends on holding on to its ratings, and its own overpaid but essential stars.

The courts are surely not for this

Inappropriateness and gender conflict, set against a university background, have inspired work from David Mamet, Philip Roth and JM Coetzee, but the latest version, being played out in Cambridge Crown Court, reads like a desperate Carry On script.

Dr Peter Hutchinson, right, a senior university geographer, stands accused of indecent assault on a former student, now training to be a police officer. He is 61. She is 24. They had known one another for some time and, after he had apologised for an earlier bottom-patting incident, she admitted that she had been flattered by his attention. He invited her to his room and, it is claimed, tried it on with her, making "a pervy, Benny Hill, lascivious, groaning sort of noise". When he persisted, she disabled him with a forearm to the throat. Then she shopped him.

It is difficult to decide who emerges from this story with least credit. Surely we are now grown up enough for public money and time not to be spent on idiotic cases like this, however amusing to read about.

* For anyone who has spent their formative years at the place, the photographs of Wellington College in this week's press beside headlines about happiness will have caused a certain amount of head-scratching.

The school serves a purpose and happiness is undeniably important; it is the connection between the two that somehow fails to compute. Only a fool or a sociopath (of both of which, come to think of it, there were a fair number when I was at Wellington) would argue against the headmaster Anthony Seldon's plan to teach happiness lessons, but I fear it will impress less than he imagines.

While his recipe for contentment, "knowing one's limitations, accepting oneself for what one is", may be wise and gentle, most ambitious parents will interpret it as a recipe for mediocrity. Besides, if they really wanted their children to be happy, they would, in most cases, have kept them at home.

terblacker@aol.com

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