By reducing politics to a celebrity obsession, the media misdirects and confuses us, says Guardian columnist George Monbiot
What kind of people would you expect the newspapers to interview most? Those with the most to say, perhaps, or maybe those with the richest and weirdest experiences. Might it be philosophers, or detectives, or doctors working in war zones, refugees, polar scientists, street children, firefighters, base jumpers, activists, writers or free divers? No. Its actors. I havent conducted an empirical study, but I would guess that between a third and a half of the major interviews in the newspapers feature people who make their living by adopting someone elses persona and speaking someone elses words.
This is such a bizarre phenomenon that, if it hadnt crept up on us slowly, we would surely find it astounding. But it seems to me symbolic of the way the media works. Its problem runs deeper than fake news. What it offers is news about a fake world.
I am not proposing that the papers should never interview actors, or that they have no wisdom of their own to impart. But the remarkable obsession with this trade blots out other voices. One result is that an issue is not an issue until it has been voiced by an actor. Climate breakdown, refugees, human rights, sexual assault: none of these issues, it seems, can surface until they go Hollywood.
This is not to disparage the actors who have helped bring them to mainstream attention, least of all the brave and brilliant women who exposed Harvey Weinstein and popularised the #MeToo movement. But many other brave and brilliant women stood up to say the same thing and, because they were not actors, remained unheard. The #MeToo movement is widely assumed to have begun a year ago, with Weinsteins accusers. But it actually started in 2006, when the motto was coined by the activist Tarana Burke. She and the millions of others who tried to speak out were not, either literally nor metaphorically, in the spotlight.
At least actors serve everyone. But the next most-interviewed category, according to my unscientific survey, could be filed as those who serve the wealthy: restaurateurs, haute couturists, interior designers and the like, lionised and thrust into our faces as if we were their prospective clients. This is a world of make-believe, in which we are induced to imagine we are participants rather than mere gawpers.
The spotlight effect is bad enough on the culture pages. Its worse when the same framing is applied to politics. Particularly during party conference season, but at other times of the year as well, public issues are cast as private dramas. Brexit, which is likely to alter the lives of everyone in Britain, is reduced to a story about whether or not Theresa May will keep her job. Who cares? Perhaps, by now, not even Theresa May.
Neither May nor Jeremy Corbyn can carry the weight of the personality cults that the media seeks to build around them. They are diffident and awkward in public, and appear to writhe in the spotlight. Both parties grapple with massive issues, and draw on the work of hundreds in formulating policy, tactics and presentation. Yet these huge and complex matters are reduced to the drama of one persons struggle. Everyone, in the medias viewfinder, becomes an actor. Reality is replaced by representation.
Even when political reporting is not reduced to personality, political photography is. An article might offer depth and complexity, but is illustrated with a photo of one of the 10 politicians whose picture must be attached to every news story. Where is the public clamour to see yet another image of May let alone Boris Johnson? The pictures, like the actors, blot out our view of other people, and induce us to forget that these articles discuss the lives of millions, not the life of one.
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