Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.
 
       
 

A Roman Circus for faux celebrity
The casual manner with which elected public figures defer to unelected celebrities indicates that they possess a feeble sense of their own authority.

I have a confession to make. Maybe I am not a real bloke but, until his tragic accident, I had never heard of Richard Hammond. However, the day after his misfortune, it was impossible to meet anyone who did not have strong views about the event. One of my 10-year-old son's friends described the Top Gear presenter as "awesome" and "even more important than Becks".

A week previously, another celebrity, the Australian television personality Steve Irwin, was the focus of an animated national conversation. And a week before that it was Kate Moss, or was it Paris Hilton? These days celebrities really come into their own when they become ill, develop an addiction or die.

It is difficult not to feel sorry for the poor Lib Dems. Just as they are about to rebrand their leader as an energetic celebrity, their conference is overshadowed by news of the accident of a genuine television personality. And these days, Richard Hammond is more important than Sir Menzies Campbell. The imagination of 21st-century society appears to be captured by the celebrity. Celebrity culture has become our equivalent of a Roman Circus. Instead of gladiators we have a disposable culture of celebrities. Just as unpopular Roman senators hid behind their gladiators, so today's disoriented politicians give way to the celebrity.

Jamie Oliver is not just a cook. He is a celebrity chef and therefore entitled to set the public agenda on how parents and schools should feed their children. These days political leaders feel compelled to have a Bono or a Sir Bob Geldof on board before they announce their latest international initiative. Who would know about Darfur if it were not for George Clooney? John Howard, the Prime Minister of Australia, showed that he was the consummate politician when he offered to mount a state funeral for Steve Irwin. That is also why last year, Peter Hain, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, agreed that Stormont should be made available for the funeral of the footballer George Best.

Are politicians responding to popular demand for more celebrity culture or are they simply attempting to gain legitimacy through their association with glamorous and not-so-glamorous people? Whatever the answer, the casual manner with which elected public figures defer to unelected celebrities indicates that they possess a feeble sense of their own authority. Their embrace of celebrity culture is testimony to a reluctance to engage with the big questions of our time. So it is not surprising that at a time when Western societies find it so difficult to endow everyday life with meaning and purpose, people are drawn towards the lives of celebrities. In a world bereft of official leaders or heroes, people make do with personalities.

It is not genuine affection or empathy that provokes public concern with the fate of the celebrity. Deep inside, most people understand that the ghastly injuries suffered by Richard Hammond are no more unique or "meaningful" than those suffered by thousands of traffic accident victims every year. People also know that the death of Steve Irwin was just that, a death.

Public grief has little to do with the object of mourning. What is important about it is that it is public; it is an experience that we can share. In a world where we rarely feel part of something bigger than ourselves, public concern for the fate of someone we all "know" provides a glimpse of what a community looks like. Tragedies have always had a capacity for binding people together. However, the macabre rituals that are now enacted through the media around the misfortune of celebrities can only forge the illusion of a community.

First published in the Sunday Telegraph, 24 September 2006