As I was driving to my short summer holiday last month, while fretting in guilty fashion about the CO2 emissions of the petrol-fuelled hire car I was driving, I distracted myself by listening to Radio 2.
Each hour the BBC news headlines informed me about the shocking fall-out of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, more extreme weather events, success for the GB team at the Paralympics …. and a story about Tom Cruise’s car being stolen.
Each hour, I waited for more details on this last item: was he held hostage? Did the thieves kill or injure someone through reckless driving? No. It was stolen and then, um, found a short while later, undamaged but with some items missing. That was it.
It is impossible to understand the modern world without acknowledging the steady and deep infiltration of mainstream news and television broadcasting by celebrity culture, the ‘Kardashian effect’ – that is, the idea that something is newsworthy simply because it is said by a famous person, or has happened to one. When I was young, gossip about the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton was confined to the colour supplements. Nowadays such froth may feature on the front page.
This obsession is not harmless. In the same week that the BBC told us about a theft of car belonging to a movie star, I learned more about trauma and suicides experienced by nurses and doctors in the UK who are whistleblowers, hounded to self-destruction by the retributive action routinely meted out to almost anyone in the UK public sector who dares stand up for public safety and civil rights, as I wrote about in an earlier blog. Such cases receive negligible media coverage.
I think I understand why our news media have an imbalance in coverage towards lives of movie stars, singers and sportspeople, sometimes neglecting stories that are profoundly in the public interest.
This is an issue for ghostwriters. After all, to an extent we contribute to, and profit from, celebrity culture. The reasons are largely to do with economics, and the dynamics affected me personally, because I became a ghostwriter in response to them. Before digital media transformed the economics of publishing, around the period 2004-2008, it was possible for freelance writers to pursue a career penning features and news, including material that we might call ‘real’ stories. With the collapse of revenues from print advertisements, all media had to change their business models. The PR industry grew, while the pay rates for investigative journalism fell. Those of us whose only ability was writing had to earn a living by writing on behalf of others – others who could afford to pay.
In my case, I am often able to combine conscience with a reasonable income as there is a growing industry in sustainable business, in which I’ve developed some specialist knowledge. It’s easy, however, to imagine an ethical dilemma for a ghostwriter: accept a modest fee to promote the appalling way in which a citizen’s rights have been denied, or a lucrative sum to describe how an Instagram star made their millions with questionable tactics?
The publishing industry has questions to address. Increasingly, publishers insist upon an author having a large following before committing to publishing a book. This was evident in case of the fake cancer sufferer Belle Gibson, whose misleading dietary advice was published in a lavishly produced publication The Whole Pantry by Penguin on the basis of her huge social media following. The book encouraged cancer sufferers to shift away from scientifically sound medical treatment, before her deception was exposed by investigative journalists.
It might be mistaken, however, to take the cynicism around stardom too far. Most famous people have genuine ability and achievements, often humanitarian as well as artistic or sporting. Marcus Rashford, for example, is a gifted footballer as well as an articulate and effective social campaigner, using his profile to alleviate poverty and suffering. Perhaps, for every bad celebrity, there is a good one.
We ghostwriters could strive for a balance; alternate our memoir-writing with some honest investigative endeavour on behalf of a sound cause, in the way that some lawyers will combine corporate work with pro bono human rights cases.
Above all I think the growing tendency towards celebrity worship is an issue that as a society we need to discuss – publishers and ghostwriters included.
- Philip Whiteley is an author and ghostwriter, who pens fiction under the byline PJ Whiteley. There is more information at www.pjwhiteley.com