Liz Gerard on how the press attack celebrities and not their message
- Credit: Archant
Our newspapers have decided that celebrities should be seen and not heard, says Liz Gerard
Freedom of speech is to be cherished. If someone wants to tell all about their three-in-a-bed experience with a celebrity, they should be allowed to – regardless of any consequences for the celebrity's children. So say the Mail, Sun, Telegraph, Times et al.
But what if a celebrity wants to tell the world about refugees or the environment or discrimination? Well, they're entitled to their opinion, of course. But it would be much better if they kept their noses out.
Just as Michael Gove took it upon himself to speak for us all when he declared 'People in this country have had enough of experts', so our newspapers have decided that we've also had enough of luvvies. And, as with Gove's experts, it doesn't matter whether they know what they're talking about or not. They should just pipe down.
Last week Amal Clooney joined the UN's refugee summit in New York and went on to share a platform with President Obama. Over the course of the weekend she mentioned that Germany had taken 70,000 Yazidi refugees from the Isis conflict, whereas the UK had granted asylum to just one family. She suggested that Britain – and other countries – might do a bit more.
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Clooney appeared with a 23-year-old woman called Nadia Murad, who is taking legal action against Isis accusing it of kidnapping, sex slavery and genocide. The Iraqi government has nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize and the UN has named her its first goodwill ambassador for survivors of human trafficking. Clooney is her lawyer.
This is how the Daily Mail reported Clooney's contribution to the summit: 'Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney angered MPs last night by attacking Theresa May and Britain for not taking more refugees from Syria.
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'The wife of George Clooney, who lives in a mansion near Mrs May's home in Berkshire...'
Thus some Tory MPs, her husband and her living arrangements were all given precedence over what she had to say. Under a snide 'who does she think she is?' headline.
If Clooney and her opinions are so insignificant, you'd imagine that the papers would report her remarks and leave it there.
No chance. The next day Christopher Hart was on parade on the Mail's comment page, denouncing the 'dubious poseuse celebrity lawyer and wife of the famous George'. While over at the Sun, Rod Liddle was describing her as 'hugely irritating and smug'.
Hart had only to read his own paper's cuttings to discover that she has credentials beyond her wedding ring. These include an Oxford law degree and a successful practice with a London chambers. Mohamed Fahmy, a journalist jailed in Egypt in a press freedom cause celebre, was a client.
Clooney poses a dilemma for the Mail. She is beautiful, glamorous and 'British' – her family fled the Lebanese civil war and settled here when she was two. The paper was therefore patriotically proud when the biggest name in Hollywood chose her as his wife. But human rights? She's a bit of a leftie, isn't she?
Still, even when the critical scrutiny spawned a spread on her 'scary skinniness', Amanda Platell described her as a 'clever, thoughtful woman', and noted: 'A year ago, no one outside illustrious legal circles knew the name Amal Alamuddin. Fewer still had an opinion about her clothes, figure, hair, handbag or shoes.
'An internationally renowned human rights lawyer at the top of her career, her performance in court and her fine brain were all she was judged on.'
Well the Mail certainly has an opinion on her clothes, hair, figure, handbag and shoes now. They are all that matter. And the bunions caused by her 'killer shoes'. Forget the brain: she relinquished her right to speak on the subject that is her speciality when she married an actor and became an honorary luvvie.
For 'bleeding heart luvvies' are the curse of modern political discourse. They live their privileged lives, where reality never impinges on their 'permanent floating champagne bubble', as they flit from mansion to mansion, red carpet to red carpet. And yet they dare to lecture, harangue and bully the rest of us.
But they also sell papers.
This last week we had an object lesson in how the Daily Mail operates. Monday's paper – put together by the skeleton Sunday 'B' team – contained photographs of Mrs Clooney, accompanied by a caption story that duly noted her thinness and £2,696 Michael Kors dress.
It's not hard to imagine how the Monday morning editorial conference panned out. The picture was too far back – on page 35 – and where was the detail of the accessories? This was an opportunity missed and the full-strength 'A' team would have to do a proper job.
So on Tuesday, there she was on the front page, alongside a headline saying 'How Mrs Clooney has worn £34,000 of clothes in 14 days'. Inside was a spread pricing every item of clothing and accessory, along with details of her 'grandstanding' and the 'worthy causes' that made her haute couture seem 'out of place'.
The rich, apparently, cannot speak for the poor or dispossessed. Nor can the experts. Or Obama. Or Merkel. Or the UN. Or left-wing politicians. Which pretty much leaves 'ordinary people' and newspaper columnists.
In his piece last week, Christopher Hart helpfully supplied a list of luvvies whose opinions could be discounted:
Helena Bonham Carter
In fact, the list was so long that Hart concluded: 'Actually, it's probably just easier to say 'all of them'. The whole ghastly, smug, cosseted, self-adoring crew.'
Hart also had a dig at Juliet Stevenson and David Miliband's International Rescue charity for 'hijacking Parliament Square' to display 2,500 lifejackets worn by refugees who died trying to cross from Turkey to Greece. That exhibition – sorry, stunt – really annoyed the Mail.
Most papers used a photograph and a brief caption. The Mail used the lifejackets (with the statue of Churchill circled in red), an inset picture of Stevenson and a story angled on those who thought the 'protest' should not have been allowed.
Such was the paper's distress about the whole affair that it wheeled out Max Hastings to have another pop the next day.
The Express was also exercised by the lifejackets. Leo McKinstry borrowed the rival paper's 'tasteless stunt' phrase and added his own twist, calling the organisers 'immigration fanatics'. He also mocked 'privileged left-wing actor' Carey Mulligan, who had 'squawked' about the Calais Jungle, and 'left-wing privately-educated' Benedict Cumberbatch.
McKinstry and the Sun's Liddle – who had been down this road before – both blamed luvvies for deaths in the Mediterranean. 'Moppety actress' Mulligan was the latest to wring her hands and say she was ashamed to be British, Liddle wrote:
'Well, me too. I'm ashamed you're British...because more people will die.'
But he saved the real bile for Emma Watson, who was treated to a picture and story of her own:
'Hermione Granger has been addressing the United Nations General Assembly. Nope, not kidding.
The actress Emma Watson is a UN 'Goodwill Ambassador'. What's that, when it's at home? I haven't a clue.
'Anyway, instead of telling them all the rules of quidditch or how to turn someone into a frog, she bored them all rigid with whining, leftie, PC crap.
'Just like all actresses do if people are stupid enough to give them the chance.
'Why do we indulge these luvvie slebs, most of whom know nowt?'
Liddle almost certainly knows exactly what a goodwill ambassador is and that they are appointed because they are famous – to put across a message that might otherwise be lost. As to 'knowing nowt', Watson was talking about sexual assaults on campus and gender equality at university, subjects on which – as a fairly recent graduate – she is probably well-qualified to speak.
And 'boring them all rigid'? Watson is regarded as one of the UN's most valuable goodwill ambassadors – having secured practical commitments from a million men for the equality initiative she heads – and other reports described her audience as 'rapt'.
Liddle's column mobilised the Twitterati to the extent that he appears to have set up a Twitter account specifically to offer a reluctant apology for the piece, which he conceded was 'crass, crude and poorly judged'.
Clooney, Mulligan, Stevenson and Watson all came under fire for comments they had just made and in every case the attacks concentrated not on what they had said but on who they were and the notion that being a wealthy actor (or married to one) invalidated their opinions.
Their comments also created the opportunity for a further poke at the likes of Rowling, Thompson and Lenny Henry, who had previously been subject to similar assaults for speaking out about Scottish independence, Brexit and inequality.
It was the same story last October when Cumberbatch urged his Hamlet audience to f*** politicians and put some money in buckets to help refugees – just as lawyers and judges were criticising the Government's response to the Syrian crisis as 'deeply inadequate'.
Julia Hartley-Brewer of the Telegraph was straight on it: 'We need to put actors and human rights lawyers in charge… after all [they] always know the right thing to do… and we always know this because they're always more than happy to tell us.'
James Delingpole joined the party in the Spectator: 'Luvvies. Is there anything they don't know? No there isn't. I've learned from the newspapers, from the TV and social media that there's not a single problem in the world, great or small, for which the luvvies don't have the definitive answer.'
But if their views are so dispensable, why do newspapers report them?
Hundreds of academics or scientists trying to spell out the importance to them of remaining within Europe were lucky to get a few sentences in the anti-EU papers – Stephen Hawking's opinion was written off as a blob at the end of a short double column story, while the pro-Brexit insurer Robert Hiscox got 10 pars all to himself.
Yet when the 'luvvies' produced their 'Remain' letter, there were picture spreads across the board screaming 'look at the money they get from the EU'.
This was surely the ultimate in having cake and eating it: plastering celebrities who sell papers across the pages – and then denouncing their temerity in opening their mouths.
Ah yes, cake. Remember when Emma Thompson described Britain as a 'cake-filled misery-laden grey old island'? The Sun splashed on the story, photoshopping a piece of cake in Thompson's mouth under the headline: 'Shut yer cakehole'.
So much for the paper that, when thwarted over the celebrity threesome, declared that free speech had drowned in a pool of olive oil.
Newspaper columnists are entitled to their view that a tougher approach to the boat people might dissuade others from risking their lives at the hands of unscrupulous traffickers. They are further entitled to put those views to the public.
But they don't have the right to tell anyone else to shut up. People who earn their living reciting other people's words are allowed to speak for themselves too.
Liz Gerard is a former Times night editor with 30 years' Fleet Street experience. She now writes the SubScribe blog about newspaper journalism at www.sub-scribe.co.uk