Let’s Dare to Denounce Dangerous Trash

Fear of siding with the right against a corrosive celebrity culture forces liberal thinkers to tolerate questionable values

Independent on Sunday, 21 August 2011

The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, went to India last week to meet leading political figures. A couple of days later, his wife, Sally, went to Elstree in Hertfordshire to meet the Irish novelty singing duo Jedward. Modern couples often elect to spend some time apart, especially in the summer holidays, and Mr and Mrs Bercow will certainly have plenty of anecdotes to compare when they reconvene in the Speaker’s grace-and-favour apartment at Westminster.

Mrs Bercow’s decision to enter the Celebrity Big Brother house has attracted a storm of criticism, but she has let it be known that her intention, besides raising money for an autism charity, is to “stick two fingers up to the establishment”. Given that pillars of the establishment are inexplicably absent from the CBB compound – something to do with the show moving downmarket to Channel 5, I expect – she may have to make do with squaring up to the former Atomic Kitten, Kerry Katona. Mrs Bercow’s husband, meanwhile, seemed relaxed about the prospect of mingling with members of the Indian establishment when he delivered a lecture on parliamentary reform at the University of Delhi.

The affair of the Speaker, his wife, and the “reality” TV show has exposed a whole series of confusions. Reactionary commentators (a category in which I naturally include one or two Labour figures) seem to imagine that Mr and Mrs Bercow are one and the same person, as though the old legal doctrine of coverture had not long been abolished. Mr Bercow is cordially loathed by many of his fellow Conservative MPs, a situation that has been exacerbated, but certainly wasn’t caused, by his wife’s extrovert personality; if he is prepared to put up with ribald remarks on her account when the House returns next month, that is entirely a matter for him.

At the same time, becoming a celebrity and giving the establishment a kicking are very different things, a distinction that seems lost on Mrs Bercow. To be fair, a lot of people are similarly confused about the difference between staging a political protest and looting the local branch of Comet; an easy way of telling the difference, for future reference, is to remember that not many people in Syria have expressed their opposition to the Assad regime by nicking a DVD player.

Having failed to become a Labour councillor, an ambition that strikes me as perfectly reasonable, Mrs Bercow not only agreed to appear on CBB but is using part of her fee to hire the publicist Max Clifford, who has revealed that she “wants to speak to Simon Cowell about potential TV projects”.

Such an ambition, though no doubt shared by many people, is more about self-promotion than any species of rebellion. Cowell is one of the principal gatekeepers of celebrity culture in the UK, perceived as the man who can breathe life into the cliché of “following your dream”. It’s a world where the potential rewards are almost comically out of proportion to talent; Kerry Katona, who is more famous for her disastrous relationships than for her singing career, is reportedly being paid £300,000 for her appearance on CBB, while Jedward are trousering a cool half million.

Mrs Bercow isn’t yet in that league – her fee is apparently £150,000 – but even these one-off payments pale into insignificance beside the salaries of those titans of celebrity culture, Premier League footballers. The Manchester United player and former England captain Rio Ferdinand gets around £6m a year, more than the entire annual health budget of Sierra Leone a couple of years ago; the London club Arsenal has just lost its captain, Cesc Fabregas, to Barcelona, despite increasing his wages in 2010 to an eye-watering £110,000 a week.

After the riots in English towns and cities earlier this month, the obscene rewards demanded by celebrities might reasonably have been expected to become a target of criticism. For the left, inequality is at the heart of explanations for the social conditions that have produced a generation of disaffected young people, and it’s been open season (again) on bankers, politicians and journalists. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has used apocalyptic language, talking about a “slow-motion moral collapse” and calling for condign punishments to make people behave better in future. Yet the warped values of celebrity culture, which reward narcissism above anything else, have largely escaped mention even as the latest batch of show-offs were sashaying into the CBB compound.

This may be because what criticism there is of celebrities tends to come from a suspect source, namely right-wing newspapers such as the Daily Mail; the paper’s journalists are interested in Katie Price and her boyfriends for all the wrong reasons, sneering because she’s a well-off “chav”. Left-of-centre commentators don’t do much better, fearing accusations of elitism if they don’t pay sufficient attention to Big Brother and all its off-shoots. The result is a slew of columns in the serious press making fun of “sleb” culture while becoming parasitic upon it. This is a shame, because footballers, Wags, supermodels and “reality” TV stars have a profound impact on how we live; they may not see themselves as role models, but ordinary people read about them in Hello! magazine and dream about being famous, owning fast cars and having glamorous partners.

Celebrity culture has lent conspicuous consumption (of relationships, as well as of objects) a spurious respectability that some opinion-formers are reluctant to criticise even when it runs counter to their own values. Mr Bercow is certainly no fan of CBB – “He was not very pleased but he knows what I am like”, his wife has said – but that doesn’t make him old-fashioned or puritanical. If we are going to have a serious discussion about values in the wake of the riots, we can’t avoid talking about the way celebrities behave. Selfishness has political consequences, no matter how much it’s dressed up as harmless entertainment.

 

A-level results that should shock us

Pupils at private schools, which educate only 6.5 per cent of children, achieved 30 per cent of A* grades at A-level this year

Independent, Friday 19 August 2011

They’re the kind of teenagers we can’t get enough of at this time of year: girls with long, glossy hair embracing each other on a lawn with mellow stone buildings in the background.

Tamara (left, in our imaginary picture) has just heard that she’s achieved two A* grades in her A-levels and will be going to Warwick, while Charlotte (middle) is off to study medicine at Cambridge. Boys are allowed to feature in this annual August beauty contest for high-achievers, especially if their families belong to an ethnic minority, but the preference is for brainy girls. And there definitely isn’t a hoodie or a baseball cap in sight.  

Yesterday’s A-level results produced the usual crop of celebratory photographs, along with a fanfare of announcements about how well candidates have done: it’s been another record year for pass rates, which have risen to 97.8 per cent, and boys have achieved as many top grades as girls. This year’s big story is about the scramble as aspiring students rush to get into university before next year’s hike in fees, leaving 185,000 candidates competing for 29,000 unfilled places on degree courses. One angry young woman didn’t improve her chances when she went on Twitter to describe the Ucas website, which crashed under the weight of disappointed candidates trying to find alternative courses, as “literally the worst thing in the world”. Someone please book that girl on to the next available flight to Somalia.

This year’s A-level results are impressive, and no doubt a lot of young adults have worked very hard. But there’s another story here, about class and the north-south divide, which doesn’t reflect anything like as well on the UK’s educational system. The annual ritual of publishing A-level results contains within it an absolutely shocking story about the impact on life chances of privilege and geography. Pupils at private schools, which educate only 6.5 per cent of children in the UK, achieved 30 per cent of A* grades at A-level this year. That’s the same proportion as last year, and yesterday’s results are not expected to show a fairer distribution in the effect of location on results. Last year pupils in the affluent south-east of England, which accounted for 19 per cent of A-level entries, achieved 23 per cent of A* grades; the north-east produced only three per cent of A*s from four per cent of entries.

How many Geordie lads and lasses, I wonder, were photographed leaping for joy in yesterday’s newspapers? Because of where they happen to live and their family background, kids from this area are less likely to sit A-levels or get the top grades that would get them into world-class universities. The standard offer at Cambridge is currently an A* and two As; research published earlier this year suggests that pupils from private schools are 55 times more likely to get a place at Oxbridge than state school pupils who receive free school meals (a recognised indicator of poverty). Geography turns out to have a significant effect on where candidates go to university, with urban universities such as the LSE, UCL and Liverpool taking a much higher proportion of students who were entitled to free school meals than Oxford or Cambridge.

One of yesterday’s most dramatic revelations was the confidence gap between inner-city state schools and private establishments, where savvy teachers know how to get free publicity. Henrietta Lightwood, head of admissions at Badminton girls’ school, sent out a press release promising introductions to three A-level students “who would make very good case studies – they speak extremely well and take a good picture”. She enthused that one girl had “single-handedly” delivered a foal while another had designed a solar-powered car, providing an insight into a world of achievement and privilege – fees for senior school boarders at Badminton will be £9,740- a-term from September – which could hardly be further from the experience of most teenagers in this country.

The problem with the annual August frenzy over exam results is it draws attention away from hundreds of thousands of young adults who have minimal qualifications, little hope and no jobs. While commentators focus on the plight of A-level students who haven’t quite achieved the grades they hoped for, huge numbers of their peers are unemployed; most didn’t join in last week’s riots – the north-east was largely spared, despite having the highest rate of youth unemployment in the country – but MPs have been warning for some time about the existence of a “lost generation”. According to analysis carried out by the GMB union, almost a third of young adults (31.6 per cent) are out of work in Middlesbrough; the figure is 29.4 per cent in Redcar and Cleveland, while almost a quarter of people aged 16 to 24 in Sunderland have no jobs.

During the past few days, CCTV pictures have provided a rogues’ gallery of young rioters, some of whom are heading for custodial sentences. Yesterday produced a contrasting set of images: high-achieving young people on their way to successful careers in law, medicine or the arts. Neither tells the whole truth about young people in this country, but they’re a reminder we live in a society where class and geography matter as much as ability.

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