The visible price of fame

Those who seek a slice of celebrity cannot then demand anonymity when the occasion suits Fame has never been more available, nor more widely sought, than it is now
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In recent days the word "anonymity" has been making a lot of public appearances - becoming, indeed, something of a celebrity noun. This follows the acquittal of the actor Craig Charles on rape charges. Like previous men cleared of rape, Charles is troubled that the identity of women in such cases is protected, win or lose, while men may be named throughout the proceedings, cleared or jailed. The legal aspects of this debate have been well aired. Yet far more relevant to this particular case, which seems to me an untypical one, are the media and social aspects.

The question of "anonymity" is really just the question of "celebrity" in disguise. What is fascinating about Craig Charles's complaints in newspaper pieces and television interviews in the past few days is that the person demanding anonymity was already, at the time of arrest, a celebrity - the nearest British equivalent, though a minor one, to OJ Simpson. Accordingly, his arguments were at best nave, and at worst surreal.

Imagine that the general anonymity rules Mr Charles seeks for rape cases had been in force at the time of his own arrest. Do we seriously believe that reports of this event would have recorded merely, in the agreed legalese, that a "30-year-old man" had been charged with rape?

Celebrity consists of presence in the public eye. How would the actor's sudden disappearance - on remand and awaiting trial - have been explained? A small piece on the entertainment pages, perhaps, notes that the planned seventh series of BBC2's Red Dwarf has been cancelled owing to the "sudden unavailability" of Craig Charles? Explaining to local newspapers the last- minute cancellation of the actor's stage shows and personal appearances, his agent cites "personal reasons"? You don't need to have read many modern newspapers to doubt this scenario. And anyway, those vague phrases are such well-known cowbell code for fatal illness or residence in a rehabilitation clinic that they would probably have been nearly as damaging to the actor's career as rape charges.

Therefore, unless he is being purely altruistic, and seeking to change the legal system for the benefit of male defendants generally, Craig Charles's comments are most interesting as a revelation of the psychological problem of celebrity. Like many stars, he would like, in his private life, to become anonymous, invisible, but this is not possible. Indeed, some would argue that had Mr Charles not been a celebrity, he would never have become involved in the unusual lifestyle that led to the pre-dawn search for breakfast with an old girlfriend from which the charges resulted.

He does have a point, though, when he questions the decision of the unsuccessful female plaintiff voluntarily to drop her anonymity in order to talk to a tabloid newspaper afterwards. The law risks looking foolish if defendants start switching their anonymity on and off like a light, depending on the outcome of a case.

The problem is that, in the interview given by the woman in the case, the legal "right to anonymity" has come up against the social "right to publicity" which has become one of the governing assumptions of our culture. Both winners and losers in a high-profile trial have a story to tell. This vast industry of the purchase and publication of individual accounts means that fame has never been more generally available, nor widely sought, than it is now. The "right to silence" - to borrow another useful legal concept - is an increasingly unpopular option.

The case of Channel 4 and the runaway schoolboy Peter Kerry is another example of this phenomenon. The Channel 4 chairman, Sir Michael Bishop, has ordered an inquiry into the decision by The Word to interview the boy on top of the Empire State Building, where he would apparently have explained that he got the idea for the scam from the Macauley Culkin movie Home Alone. Channel 4 vetoed this idea after newspaper protests, but Peter still spent the weekend in New York, paid for by The Word.

Sir Michael describes all this as "indefensible", and sounds baffled that anyone could ever have contemplated it, but here, surely, speaks a man of a certain generation (he's 53) and background (Mill Hill school). The interesting thing is the behaviour of the younger types involved: Peter, a modern adolescent, and the producers of The Word, where, I would guess, 26 is regarded as wrinkly. To these generations the stunt seemed not only defensible, but routine.

What intrigues me about Peter is to what extent he considered the potential celebrity angle when he, in two senses, took off. This was a very modern skedaddle - credit card and jumbo jet rather than knotted handkerchief and lift-thumbing - and it must be thought likely that the boy was equally cognisant with that other 20th-century machine: the publicity one. If you wrote Dick Whittington now, the hero would most plausibly be seeking in London not gold-paved streets but a job as presenter of The Word. Doesn't Sir Michael understand that Peter simply did what the subjects of news stories now do? He was made a media offer and took it.

Certainly the young creators of that programme understood the game perfectly, right down to the fact that Peter would blame the media for his action: a neat reference to the theme of the current modish movie, Natural Born Killers. It would not surprise me if it was The Word, rather than the boy, who came up with that stuff about Home Alone. For a start, the plot is quite wrong. Macauley Culkin is left in the house when his parents catch a plane; Peter Kerry caught a plane and left his parents in the house. And do we really believe that a cool 14-year-old wanted to be Macauley Culkin? If he was influenced by a movie, it was Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

Sadly for him, Peter is too young to retain a Max Clifford and turn his notoriety into a career. He will be an answer or a question in this year's December quizzes, and such is the pace and change of news that a number of people will suck their pencils and remember him only as "that boy who ran away". He seems a natural, in 20 years' time, for that Radio 4 series Famous for 15 Minutes, which revisits the briefly celebrated but now forgotten. We can imagine the chuckle in the interviewer's voice as the subject of Peter's disciplining of his own children is raised. And that will be that - unless, of course, Peter succeeds in his declared ambition of becoming a pilot, at which point the airline that employs him is going to have a perfect publicity opportunity on its hands.

But when Craig Charles starts talking about "the right to anonymity", even in the specialised sense that he intends it, he is swimming against the modern tide. For "anonymity" and "silence" are dead concepts in our culture, disappearing from the legal system and gone completely from general living.