Sunday, 10 July 2011

Why Celebrities Matter Too

In amongst the chatter and hum generated by this week’s big scandal, a disturbing idea has been nestling. 

“When it was just celebrities, no-one really had much sympathy,” commented the newsreaders, as they tracked the phone-hacking scandal’s journey from tiny acorn to giant oak. 

“Of course, no-one really cares about celebrities who get paid £5m a film,” posited the panel on Newsnight, as they analysed the fallout from the discovery that people other than the fabulously beautiful and wealthy had been hacked.

“Now it’s not just celebrities but real people involved I care far more,” mused the twitterati, “in fact, now I can muster some real moral outrage.”

As a nation, when we discovered what the News of the World had been up to regarding, not just Milly Dowler, but all the other poor victims of senseless tragedy, we drew in a collective horrified breath.  And rightly so.  These people had had their privacy violated in a most dreadful way.  How could this happen, we asked ourselves.  How could it have been considered appropriate, even for a second, to listen in on the private messages of a murdered teen or a grieving family, just for the sake of getting the scoop?  When did journalists become so callous, so evil?  How did we get here? 

The answer is, we got here by degrees, and it started with our disturbing idea that celebrities are somehow not real human beings. 

No-one cared about this story when it was just the phones of the rich and famous.  Then ‘real people’ got involved and suddenly it’s a scandal that has our political leaders scrambling around to get involved in the mudslinging, suddenly we feel strongly enough to bully companies into withdrawing their advertising, suddenly it’s bad enough that a paper that ran for 160 years is closed down, virtually overnight.  Suddenly.  Shouldn’t our moral outrage have started a little earlier? 

Hacking into someone’s private phone and listening in on their messages is an appalling breach of privacy.  Why was it not that big a deal when the people it was happening to were rich and successful?  The idea that, because a person is vastly more wealthy than we are, they will not feel the same sense of violation and betrayal that we would, or that they would, but it wouldn’t matter because they’re so rich so who cares what they think anyway, is as hideous in its own way as the actions of the phone hackers.  What gives us the right to de-humanise someone just because they have more than we have? 

Celebrities are real people.  We may not like them, and we may not like the rewards they get for their efforts compared to the rewards we get for ours, but they haven’t made a deal with the devil.  They haven’t stood under a blasted oak at a crossroads at midnight and signed away their souls in return for getting to fulfill their creative potential.  For years now we’ve allowed tabloid journalists to bamboozle us with the idea that because actors and musicians are in the public eye, they’re ‘asking for it’, that any intrusion into their lives is justified because they dare to step into the spotlight of fame.  It’s a fallacy, one we’ve believed for far too long.  No-one deserves to have their private conversations eavesdropped on, or to have the details of their sexual and romantic relationships spilled to a red-top, or to have their children followed to school and back for the sake of a picture, or to be harried and pressured and scrutinised and treated like an entertaining pet.  Some people will do anything to be famous, but most truly famous people are simply extremely talented at their jobs.  It’s hardly something to be punished for, but punish them we do.  And how easy, then, for the journos to take that extra step, to lose sight of who they’re targeting.  If Hugh Grant’s feelings don’t count then, really, do anybody’s, when there’s a story at stake?  If a reporter, or a private detective, is prepared to treat one human being in that way, should we really be surprised that they can just as easily do it to another?

So, we may well ask ourselves how we arrived at this point, this week.  It was clearly a journey we never intended to go on, but we took the first step when we started separating out little groups of people in society we felt we didn’t need to care about.  Because once we stop caring about someone just because they’re rich, or famous, or successful, it’s a short road to not caring about anyone. 

Sunday, 3 July 2011

In which I interview Johann Hari...

Johann Hari is a hard man to read, his body language a blank.  He may as well be a computer screen.  The room is hot, despite me opening a window.  I ask him if he's comfortable, but he doesn't reply.  I wonder if he's tense.  He's had a difficult week, being accused of everything from plagiarism to dishonesty to stupidity, after it emerged that many of his interviews for the Independent newspaper were a less than accurate transcript of the encounter.

I open by directly addressing the issue.  The charge of plagiariasm?  "This accusation is totally false." he says firmly.  False?  Really?  Quotes from the interviewees' writings presented as verbatim speech?  Hari is clear in his refutation.  "I have sometimes substituted a passage they have written or said more clearly elsewhere on the same subject for what they said to me so the reader understands their point as clearly as possible. The quotes are always accurate representations of their words, inserted into the interview at the point where they made substantively the same argument using similar but less clear language."  I open my mouth to press him further but he jumps in, ahead of me.  "This does not fit any definition of plagiarism. Plagiarism is presenting somebody else’s intellectual work as your own – whereas I have always accurately attributed the ideas of (say) Gideon Levy to Gideon Levy."

So, not plagiarism then, but what of dishonesty?  Hari is still giving little away.  His mouth is a straight line.  His eyes, behind thin-rimmed spectacles, gaze at me unblinking.  His head remains tilted to one side as we talk.  It's like talking to a still photograph, a press shot.  The room is still hot, despite the slight breeze from the window.  I take my cardigan off then put it back on again.  In the corner of the room Truman Capote flicks irritably through a copy of 'To Kill a Mockingbird'.  I ask Hari about the ethics, then, of his "attributions".  He appears to feel he's doing his subjects a favour.  "I only ever substituted clearer expressions of the same sentiment, so the reader knew what the subject thinks in the most comprehensible possible words."  Gideon Levy, one of Hari's subjects, has, indeed, stood by him, saying the interview was “a totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words.”  In fact, Gideon Levy walks in just as we touch on this.  "In my nearly ten years of interviewing none of my interviewees have, to my knowledge, ever said they were misquoted." Hari says, with a slight touch of petulance.

Levy would appear to agree.  "I stand behind everything that was published in the interview.  It was a totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words."
Hari's tone becomes pointed.  "These are his words." he says, indicating Levy, who nods and repeats "It was a totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words."  I open my mouth to ask him what he feels about the wider implications of Hari's behaviour, but again I'm forestalled.  "A totally accurate representation of my thoughts and words." he says once again, before leaving via the inflatable chute.

Hari seems satisfied with this, but I have to admit I'm not, and neither is Elvis.  He fixes Hari with a ten-yard Tennessee stare.  "You ain't nothing but a hound dog." he mutters.  It's impossible to tell it Hari is affected by this.  I know I would be.  I want to ask Hari what he feels about the awards he's won for journalism, and whether he feels that an interview is actually a compact between two people, a compact he's betrayed.

I raise the point but he returns to his earlier theme.  "I stress: I have only ever done this where the interviewee was making the same or similar point to me in the interview that they had already made more clearly in print. Where I described their body language, for example, I was describing their body language as they made the same point that I was quoting – I was simply using the clearer words from their writing so the reader understood the point best."  It's as though he's avoiding the issue.  The heat rises, and I open a second window.  The sound from the 1904 St Louis World's Fair comes flooding in, a riot of carousel melodies and carnival cries, but it can't be helped.  We need the air.

I get the feeling Hari isn't keen to talk about his awards, or face the fact that he made an executive decision to alter what his subjects represented to him in good faith, for the sake of his own idea about what constitutes clarity.  Is he willing to make any kind of apology for this, at least?  "If (for example) a person doesn’t speak very good English, or is simply unclear, it may be better to quote their slightly broken or garbled English than to quote their more precise written work, and let that speak for itself."  Is that a no, then?  "It depends on whether you prefer the intellectual accuracy of describing their ideas in their most considered words, or the reportorial accuracy of describing their ideas in the words they used on that particular afternoon."  Can he see how some people might find that problematic?  "Since my interviews are long intellectual profiles, not ones where I’m trying to ferret out a scoop or exclusive, I have, in the past, prioritized the former. That was, on reflection, a mistake, because it wasn’t clear to the reader."  Capote glances up momentarily, and Elvis makes a 'pfft' sound. 

I sense there isn't much else he's willing to say.  I know he feels that he's simply presented a truth, the subject's ideas in their purest form.  But isn't he missing a vital point?  Isn't the interview, I ask, a skill in itself, more than just the recitation of the subject's main soundbites? Doesn't it require an ability to draw the subject down unexplored avenues, somewhere beyond their own previously expressed ideas?  Isn't it the job of the interviewer to create an atmosphere, a conversation, in which the subject feels free to express themselves?  And isn't it the job of the interviewer to keep faith with their readers by representing that conversation accurately, however irritating that may be to their sense of clarity or style, however garbled or disjointed that may make the piece?  Finally, isn't it a lie to pretend you have the gift of eliciting clear, concise statements from people when you have no greater ability to do this than anyone else?

Hari says nothing to this.  Perhaps he doesn't want to get into it.  Perhaps he simply doesn't have an answer.  Or perhaps he's distracted by Marilyn, who's come in from the fair to get away from Jack the Ripper and drink her lemonade in peace.

Who knows?  The interview is over and Hari is gone, as quietly as he came.  Elvis shakes his head sadly.  The afternoon heat is starting to fade, replaced by the first chill of evening.  I close the window.  Marilyn tells me she's seen a man who claims he can read minds.  Capote snorts and she pouts at him.  I look through the glass at the fair, thinking about Hari, sacrificing one truth for another.  Outside, the fair continues, will continue into the night, light glittering on a thousand stalls and exhibits, gaudy and demanding.