Journalistic junk food

Excuse me while I hop on to my hobby-horse. It's had something of a gee-up of late.

Those who read widely cannot have missed references to the coming demise of newspapers - beefed up by tales of woe from an indebted, collapsing US newspaper industry and the predations of the internet - and the slow death of journalism itself.

Without devoting a column to this ill-founded prediction, there are those of us who feel, to paraphrase Mark Twain, that rumours of the impending bereavement have been greatly, not to say prematurely, exaggerated.

Nonetheless it is to the shame of the good ship New Zealand journalism, and many who sail within her, that when, apparently, an unprecedented crisis is upon us, much of the media appear to have adopted an apocalyptic approach to an honourable profession.

And in so doing seem determined to hasten the destruction of those very qualities that have been, and will prove again to be, the guarantors of longevity: integrity, authority, credibility, depth, independence, accountability.

A significant segment - with notable exceptions including this very parish, and, yes, I would say that wouldn't I? - appear to have fallen holus bolus under the seductive spell of "celebrity journalism" - a shallow, ethically questionable and addictive confection that hounds the notion of "the public interest" to the grave, and beyond.

They have embraced celebrity's cheap values and garish acolytes in a passionate and determined death-spin. Destination lowest common denominator - with its currency of voyeurism, prurience, and popularity, justifying it all by the enhanced readership figures or ratings (usually expressed as "giving the readers/viewers what they want"), as if this end justifies the crude, self-serving means required to arrive at it.

Well it doesn't, and if you roll around in a pigsty you should not expect to come up smelling of roses.

And smelling of roses those outlets that revelled, gloried in and delivered saturation coverage of the Veitch-Dunne-Powell affair certainly are not.

But now that the (largely Auckland) media seem to have satiated themselves, wrung every last drop of pathos, anger, bitterness, and recrimination out of it, and the circus has packed up its celebrity baggage and rolled out of town, perhaps we can reflect.

"Celebrity" has always been a part of the media. It would be futile, and plainly wrong, to assert otherwise. But it has been mostly as reportage of genuine cultural phenomena, whether the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth in the 1950s, Beatlemania in the 1960s, rock gods in the 1970s, movie stars in the 1980s, the Spice Girls in the 1990s - and the traditional values of "the Fourth Estate" applied.

Celebrity and the "journalism" it most inspires today is a saccharine and artificial construct. It is the journalistic equivalent of fast food, the sugar-coated curse of a media that helped to create it. In this country at least, it mostly arises out of a symbiotic cycle of TV programmes (often of the "reality" variety), women's magazines, and mainstream print and electronic media around which the usually willing celebrity conspirator is packaged and passed.

Everyone clips the ticket along the way, and the celebrity's value is enhanced. But fame and celebrity are fragile notions, here one day gone the next, and, like a stock market bubble, ultimately illusory. Not that you'd get that impression from the way "celebrities" are paraded as figures to be admired and emulated - apparently rich, beautiful, sun-tanned, successful, well-built, happy, balanced etc, when in reality - that word again - they may be anything but. Celebrity culture is a con.

The original, breaking coverage of the Tony Veitch affair, a high-profile public persona who had assaulted and injured his partner, was perfectly valid, and in the context of ever-increasing domestic violence in this country, in the public interest.

But many of those who see in the story's unfolding the spectre of a media-created and sustained celebrity subsequently harassed and hounded - regardless of the subject's, and the viewer/readers', collusion, or the social justification - are also likely to see a venal, self-justifying, and profit-driven media industry behind it.

We all have to sell newspapers, to make attractive programmes, and to remain relevant, but some of us like to imagine our role extends beyond this. And that we are not here just to peddle journalistic junk food.

- Simon Cunliffe is assistant editor at the Otago Daily Times.


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