Blair, Brown, and the Celebrity Culture

Posted on September 3, 2010


With the advent of a Conservative-Liberal coalition heralding the end of the New Labour era, it was only a matter of time before the political memoirs appeared, stimulating a media feeding frenzy over the scraps thrown down from the tables of the politicians.

Lord Mandelson was the first to step up with his book The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour.  Of more interest, however, this week saw the long-awaited publication of Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey, described by one newspaper as having ‘the feel of a voyeuristic celebrity memoir’. Lurid details of the Blair-Brown years from one who was actually there are finally laid bare for all to see.

There is an interesting paradox to be seen in all this. In modern times we have seen an increasing concern with the right to privacy. A whole smorgasbord of laws are formulated to help protect us against any and every violation of privacy. The Data Protection Act is acknowledged as a minefield of regulations on how to handle data about people. The Human Rights Act 1998 protects our ‘right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence’. This right has been invoked for such diverse purposes as requiring DNA samples held on file after an arrest to be destroyed, and allowing people to alter the gender entered on their birth certificates.

On the other hand, one has only to take a glance at a news stand to see that we are witnessing the explosion of a desire to know everything about the lives of everybody. Not only are gossip and celebrity magazines multiplying at a rate of knots, but even once-respectable publications now feel the need to include gossip columns and titbits of information about the high-and-mighty in order to keep their sales figures up.

There seems to be a vicious circle here. The more everyone seeks to know everything about everyone else, the more time our parliaments are forced to spend in devising complex legislation to protect people against invasions of their privacy.

But why the need to find out all this information about what other people – people none of us even know personally – are doing?  William Crawley, a BBC Journalist, suggested some time ago that celebrity culture has become ‘a replacement for family and for a sense of community’. The desire to keep ourselves informed about the boring details of the lives of all and sundry is perhaps an attempt to make up for the sad truth that because of the circumstances of modern living, many people today lack that vital connection with family, friends, and their local community which is necessary to our life in common as social beings. To make up for this deficit, we seek intimate knowledge about public figures.  Whilst the unlettered turn to Hello! magazine, those with marginally higher IQs might prefer to read about what Mr. Blair really thought of Mr. Brown, or about how many glasses of wine Mr. Blair used to enjoy with dinner.

One thing seems likely: after Mr. Brown’s most recent book, a collection of his prime-ministerial speeches, exploded on to the literary scene at number 262,956 on the Amazon bestseller list, we may be waiting a long time for a publisher willing to give us his side of the story.

(Photo credit: CC: © Jens-OlafNo endorsement implied.)