Tim Lott: The Romans had their circuses. We have 'Heat'

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The Independent Online

Have you been following the Britney story? Have you? Fascinating – such talent, such tragedy. And such great goss!

Actually, I've been carefully not following the story. You, as IoS readers, have too, I imagine. But if you've been peeking, then – shame on you. You have joined the Watchers, that army of voyeurs who define and debase our society. There are many reasons why A&B are suffering. But one of them is the intense media pressure they are under, because people want to witness their suffering. Thus the Watchers are helping to kill them as they watch them die.

Researching this article, I joined the domain of the Watchers. I saw the internet video of Britney Spears entering a car, gibbering and barking, bathed in cold paparazzi light as the shutters clicked like a forest of guillotines, like the ticking of a clock. Her last trip to the shops, we were told, was for Red Bull and constipation pills.

The flashbulbs made it look as if I had a window into the heart of an epileptic fit. I saw another photo of Britney looking as if she was already dead. It was terribly sad. The headline was "Britney at Breaking Point". How the Watchers must long for that point, that delicious point.

From the once-honoured ITN News came the video of the convoy of police taking Britney to an enforced stay in hospital so she could be prevented from killing herself. Doctors called her "gravely disabled". Such is the stuff of entertainment today.

One paparazzo, Nick Stern, quit his job with the Splash news agency a few days ago because he could not bring himself to cover Britney another day longer. "The Britney story is no longer about Britney," he said. "It's the media circus surrounding her .... It's not journalism. Sooner or later, someone's going to get killed. Possibly Britney herself."

How will the Watchers feel the day they wake up to find that Stern's rueful prediction has been fulfilled? Intoxicated with recreational mourning as they thumb through their copy of Heat while chewing over the juicy details with one "shocked" cellphone friend after another.

Heat came up at Alastair Campbell's Hugh Cudlipp lecture last Monday. He had been complaining at a function about his daughter buying such magazines that were "cruel and devoid of values", whereupon a colleague brought over Heat's editor. "He had a very interesting defence," related Campbell. "He said, 'What would you rather have – magazines like ours or public executions?'"

It is the Romans and the Circus. It's that simple. This toxic level of rubbernecking was once held in check by the common values of not only the public but the media itself. Cudlipp, the legendary chairman of the Daily Mirror, warned that he would sack any reporter who intruded on private grief. Such a statement, even by a broadsheet editor, is now unthinkable. What's going to stop the Watchers? Nothing. Unless, that is, common decency suddenly made a miraculous reappearance – the recognition that these targets of their pornographic curiosity are human beings, not just some dehumanised confection called "celebrity".

Some gaping hole has appeared in the commonality of our compassion. I have no idea how or if it can be repaired. All I can say – all any of us can say – is "I'm not going to be a part of it." I'm not going to buy this magazine, I'm not going to access that website and I'm not going to gossip about those piteous spectacles served up as soap opera.

Perhaps then the gaping hole will slowly start to mend. But sadly, even if that should happen, no one would notice. It's just not a good enough – that is to say bad enough – story.

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