Mal Fletcher
Celebrity on Trial

Finally we have an end to it. The jury has spoken. Mr Michael Jackson of Neverland Ranch, California has been found innocent of the charges levelled against him.

In some quarters – even among the jury – Jackson’s behaviour with children continues to arouse suspicion, but he has been found innocent of the charges of child abuse brought in this much publicized case.

The trial which ended this week has cost the tax payers of the local county more than $2 million. According to some reports, Mr Jackson will need to shell out an estimated $5 million to pay for his considerable defence team. Some commentators suggest that this may severely undermine his already depleted financial situation.

Some overzealous members of the media have ludicrously referred to this event as ‘the court case of the century’. How we can measure that so early into the century is a complete mystery to me!

The whole affair – the media coverage, if not the trial itself – serves as yet another example of the hype surrounding modern celebrities and our obsession with fame.

Last week I attended a conference of media professionals from across the UK. One of the conference panel sessions focused on the role of celebrity presenters in adding weight to a media message. The question was asked: ‘Does the presence of a celebrity presenter give a message more credibility, or at least a greater chance of being heard?’

Speaking via a video interview, Sir Cliff Richard noted that many a church minister will share life principles with his people every week, without anybody getting too excited. But when celebrities say much the same things, people rave about how wise and insightful they are.

We live in an age which is obsessed with celebrity. Among young people, fame has become something of a career option. We have entire media industries built around the prospect of turning people into overnight celebs.

In the wake of the Jackson trial-turned-media-circus, I think we would do well to pause and consider where this culture of celebrity may be leading us.

Celebrity is built largely on novelty. People first come to public attention often because they do something in a novel or even shocking way. Over time, when their star begins to fade, or a new generation aspires to take their place, the shocks they use must become more shocking if they are to grab the public’s attention. And what this generation tolerates, the next generation will treat as normal.

Celebrity distorts reality, making big things appear insignificant and small things appear truly world-changing. Hollywood, California is a small place - only about 210,000 people live there - yet it influences attitudes around the world, through the power of celebrity.

How many lives has celebrity ruined?

In a LIFE Magazine feature story a few years ago, the writer traced the descent of Elvis Presley into depression and drug addiction. His investigations of the events surrounding Elvis’ last years suggested to him and others that the star’s death might not have been accidental. ‘In the end,’ concluded the writer, ‘not even Elvis could be Elvis any more.’

When Kurt Cobain of Nirvana fame committed suicide, much of the secular music media could not quite take it in. Here was a grunge rock god at the height of his creative powers, with seemingly everything to live for. Yet his suicide note told of a sense of disenchantment with the whole rock scene, of personal despair and an inability to keep up an image which had never reflected reality. In the end, a young artist could not face up to his very real personal problems largely because of the expectations placed on him by image and celebrity.

These days, celebrity is built largely on image. Talent is also important, in most cases, but there are many talented people who never achieve real fame. Some people are at the top simply because someone has found the right image for them and packaged them in the right way. When you think of the individual, you think of the package; when you think of the package you remember the person. It’s all about clever marketing.

Young pop stars are unable to control their own creative destinies once they have signed on the bottom line. They become contracted players within a tightly controlled system which makes the fiefdoms of the Hollywood’s legendary moguls look like garden parties run by genteel old ladies.

In the end, celebrity is really a cheap substitute for the thing we most aspire to: influence. Months ago, I wrote about the death and legacy of the actor Christopher Reeve.

When most people think of Reeve today, they don't so much reflect on the celebrity he gained through acting; they remember his unflagging desire to pioneer a new path of recovery for himself and for others in his situation.

I wrote then that his experience reminds us that achievement often comes on the other side of adversity; that heroism is usually born in the fires of trial; that the world is changed not by celebrity-seekers but by people who take self-denying risks to improve the lot of others.

In a culture which is so besotted with the vanity of celebrity, so taken with the idea of fame for fame's sake, it's healthy for us to remember that celebrity itself does little to change the world for good.

Whether we like to hear it or not – and it won’t sell too many newspapers – self-sacrifice and service, combined with a voice of hope, are still the way to real and lasting influence.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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