Celebrities in a serious newspaper

Even the Observer, you will have noticed, is not immune to celebrity culture. While hardly drenched in photographs of film stars, models, footballers and TV personalities, the paper recognises that their presence provides some necessary light relief amid sometimes heavy politics, economics and foreign affairs. Mass media invented the idea of celebrity and no publication, however high-minded, can entirely resist the temptation to broaden its appeal in its desire to reach a wider audience.

You had to wait until page 15 for the first picture of a celebrity in the news section last week, unless you count the piece on page three on brilliant actor Mark Rylance, but I’m not sure he counts as truly glitzy. David Walliams and Matt Lucas definitely do, but they featured in a piece that was hardly celebratory: “Farewell and good riddance to Little Britain” ran the headline. Prince Harry also got a telling-off on the same page. Turning on, we find Kate Winslet gracing page 23 and a chuckle of comedians on page 27. Pierce Brosnan as James Bond makes an appearance on the Business pages, but, er, that’s it in the 46-page news section. Hardly Hello! magazine.

The New Review and Sport sections deal in all manner of celebrity, of course, but that is the nature of their calling; they report on the day jobs of these individuals. True celebrity coverage, in the tabloid sense, is obsessed with them after hours: their love lives; their social lives; falling down stairs; falling out with each other. (See page eight of today’s Review for a clever dissection of the celebrity holiday photograph.) Personally, I think the Observer has got the mix about right, having been a little too eager to feature leggy blondes in the past. But that doesn’t mean that it always gets it right.

“I would like to make a complaint about the Observer Magazine‘s decision to feature Wayne Rooney as its ‘Crush of the Week’,” wrote a reader recently, who rightly believes that “unthinking use of celebrities is lazy, patronising and cynical”.

For those who missed it, Rooney appeared in the 12 June issue at the foot of an unsigned page called The Lust List, where the magazine details “Things we fancy this week”. These curiosities can be anything from lip balm to jackets lined with coffee grounds. A small photograph of the footballer was accompanied by this text: “Crush of the Week – Wayne Rooney. By posting photos of his raw-hair-implanted head on Twitter, he leapt to the top of our ‘would’ list. It’s like anti-vanity. We love it.”

“This is a man who allegedly paid for sex while his wife was pregnant with their son,” wrote the reader. “I was shocked and appalled when I read that Mr Rooney had “leapt to the top of [your] ‘would list’ and I would like an explanation as to what kind of message the Observer Magazine thinks this is giving to women (and men for that matter) in terms of their aspirations as far as respectful and loving relationships are concerned.

“I was under the impression that the Observer was a liberal, left-of-centre broadsheet, written by serious journalists. Offensive features such as this make me think that this is not the case at all and I find it thoroughly depressing.”

I put these points to the Magazine’s editor, who responded: “If we banished every unfaithful public figure from the magazine then we might have empty pages. But more pertinently, as a liberal paper we are not censorious. As to a writer’s choice of him as ‘crush of the week’, it’s hardly for me to question the odd proclivities of the human heart, at least if I want to produce a surprising magazine. As it happens, Rachel Johnson had a piece about fancying Dominique Strauss-Kahn [the disgraced former head of the IMF] in the Spectator, which was entertaining but far closer to the borderlines of respectability. Would I have run that? I would have been tempted but ultimately, probably not.”

I think the problem here is one of endorsement. It’s fine to comment on the lifestyles and love affairs of celebrities (in moderation) but it’s not so fine to claim they have won the heart of the paper – and, by extension, the readers – when some will have understandable and profound objections to their glorification.

This column was originally published in The Observer on June 26, 2011.


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