Tuesday, April 07, 2009

The Art Of Inflammatory Rhetoric: Parky Gets Sarky

I suppose this had to happen sooner or later - although the positively awkward timing of it does rather surprise me. To sum up: Jade Goody came to represent 'all that's paltry and wretched about Britain,' Sir Michael Parkinson has said. The highly respected broadcaster - writing in the Radio Times just days after the reality TV star's funeral - also claimed that Goody was 'the perfect victim of our times.' He wrote: 'Jade Goody has her own place in the history of television and, while it's significant, it's nothing to be proud of,' adding that 'her death is as sad as [that] of any young person, but it's not the passing of a martyr or a saint. Or, God help us, Princess Diana.' Parkinson went on: 'When we clear the media smokescreen from around her death, what we're left with is a woman who came to represent all that is paltry and wretched about Britain today.' Parkinson noted that Goody 'was brought up on a sink estate, as a child came to know both drugs and crime, was barely educated, ignorant and puerile. Then she was projected to celebrity by Big Brother and, from that point on, became a media chattel to be manipulated and exploited till the day she died.' Parky also said it was not the fact Goody became famous that was the problem. 'What bothers me is that the media first of all recommended we hate Jade Goody - "a slapper with a face like a pig," "the most hated woman in Britain," remember? - and shortly thereafter tried to persuade us to celebrate her.' He said Goody was 'the perfect victim of our times,' adding that she 'died to an orchestrated chorus of exploitation.' Goody, died on Mother's Day aged twenty seven after battling cervical cancer for some months. Hundreds of people lined the streets to pay their respects as her funeral procession made its way through London on Saturday. 'All that is to be wished of such a troubled soul is: rest in peace,' Sir Michael concluded.

Now ... This is where it all gets a bit contentious, I guess. There will, undoubtedly, be many people who will be grossly offended by Sir Michael's comments, despite the fact that his obvious main target is not Goody herself but rather the tabloid press. They will, I imagine, find them obscenely spiteful and crassly timed. (And, actually, in terms of even the most basic human compassion it's very hard to argue with that second point, even if you violently agree with the other one.) Furthermore, they may consider such comments to be rather unbecoming for a man who has, by an large, always conducted himself in public with clarity and benevolence of spirit. As a counter-argument, there will unquestionably be - many - others who will be thinking 'thank Christ somebody's finally said that. It's shocking that it has taken a Knight of the Realm to voice what should be plain common sense for all to see.' These people will, perhaps, go on to express the opinion that celebrity culture, of the kind which Jade was the prime example, never ceases to amaze with its sheer banality and paucity of dignity, intelligence or, apparently, awareness of its own inherent ludicrousness.

And there will be still others who, frankly, don't really care one way or the other. Beyond, of course, the obvious tragedy of two little boys who will be growing up without a mother to look after them. You would have to be something of a cold-hearted monster, frankly, not to feel some smidgen of sympathy for them.

I think I'm bobbing somewhere between the latter two, to be honest. I do find myself with somewhat conflicted opinions about all this - does, for example, someone getting cancer suddenly see themselves absolved of all previous misdemeanours in life? All outrageous and ignorant (not to mention, self-confessed racist) public utterances? All sin, in other words? Max Clifford - the person who, if Sir Michael is correct, could be said to have 'exploited' Jade more than anyone else - was reported as saying that he found Parkinson's comments sad. 'What Michael forgets to mention is that Jade already has saved countless lives of young women through her battle with cervical cancer.' Really, Max? 'Countless'? Have you got any actual figures to back that statement up? 'A few dozen young women who probably wouldn't have had a smear test before Jade Goody's plight was highlighted who subsequently did and found themselves to be cancerous,' I might have given you without you quoting any actual figures. But 'countless'...? Crass, rank, knobless hyperbole I'm afraid. Something which has been, sad to say, the entire story of Jade Goody's life since she first burst into the public eye. So, I suppose it's only fitting that it will also, apparently, be the story of her death and, ultimately, her legacy.

Avoid it as I tried (and, believe me I DID try), I couldn't believe the media circus which surrounded Jade's funeral over the past weekend. No-one denies that it's sad when anyone young dies. Particularly, as previously noted, in a case like this where there are young children involved. But why the wall-to-wall coverage of Jade's funeral? Will ... I dunno, let's say for the sake of argument a showbusiness legend like Bruce Forsyth enjoy that sort of public hairshirt-and-ashes-bewailing when he finally shuffles off this mortal coil? Will Bobby Robson - someone who has done far more to highlight cancer awareness among the public than Jade Goody could ever aspire to in a million years? Will John Major or Tony Blair? What about Alan Sugar? Or Tim Berners-Lee? I mean, he only invented the Internet, what's that as compared to 'being on Big Brother?' These are all people who have - in one way or another - actually achieved something quantifiable in their lives and there are thousands - perhaps millions - of other examples one could have used instead. Will pretty much anyone, outside of a member of the Royal Family get their funeral covered live on British TV?

What did Jade ever actually do to justify all of that media coverage? Sky News' comment that 'She raised awareness of many issues over her twenty seven years' is, quite frankly, laughable. No she didn't. Not even remotely close. She unquestionably had one over-riding talent - that of self-promotion - and she used it (wisely) to acquire great wealth. Twice it would seem since the Shettygate scandal was said at the time to have pretty much wiped out her first fortune. But, beyond that what, exactly, did she do in life that deserved not one but two autobiographies to be published by the time she died before her thirtieth birthday?

Of course, again, playing Devil's Advocate here for a moment, there is the potential to view Sir Michael's comments as somewhat hypocritical considering that Parky himself has spent his entire TV career interviewing people who found themselves, for a variety of different reasons, in the public eye. This young lady, it could certainly be argued with some justification was no better but, also, no worse than many other publicity-seeking and self-serving 'celebrities' who were fawningly interviewed by Parky himself. Particularly during his later years at ITV. One thinks, for instance, of his genuinely stomach-churning interviews with the Beckhams. Although, even there, at least David can kick a football with some accuracy. Usually. His wife on the other hand ... Many people call her stupid but think about this: Victoria can't sing, she can't dance and yet she's a multi-millionaire. Now, who among us is the most stupid here? And, so to Jade. Like Parkinson, I certainly don't begrudge the woman her money. I just wish that she'd done something which actually had some recognisable worth - some vague merit that required a skill or a talent besides self-promotion - to acquire it. And, donating some of the reported seven hundred grand she got from Hello for her wedding photos to, say, the Marie Curie Foundation or the McMillan Cancer Trust might've been a nice gesture too.

It's also, of course, worth pointing out that many people in Britain also grew up on what Michael describes as 'sink' estates. Errr... guilty. I mean, Parky himself could be considered as something close to an example. It wasn't an estate in the way we regard the term now but I certainly don't imagine that the son of a Barnsley miner was, exactly, rolling in it when he was growing up. Usually however, if someone from such a background does eventually manage to get out of the place - as Michael did, brilliantly - then they do so not by going on a reality TV show and claiming 'East Angular' is another country. Rather, they achieve their elevation in life by working hard at school and actually advancing themselves - literally and metaphorically.

But, is there now an actual disincentive for working class kids to do that? Does it simply seem like too much hard work? Children, I think most of us would agree, should be encouraged to get an education and work their way towards a better place in the world. But, as this blog highlighted recently, what rewards are there for them to do so these days when they see someone like Jade Goody becoming rich beyond most people's wildest dreams. Front page tabloid fodder for much of the last six years of her life by doing nothing more than being common and wilfully thick and ignorant to the point of scorn and ridicule and getting paid for it?

There has, I have to say, been no great education on the subject cancer thanks to Jade Goody having had the gross misfortune to fall victim to it, whatever Max Clifford may claim to the contrary. In reality, we have learned nothing new from this entire sorry affair except some details about the continuing lack of direction, it would seem, in this country's prorities. This year one is actively encouraged to remember Jade as a tragic mother, cruelly taken before her time. Yet, just eighteen months ago she was, according to many of the same organs of the media who are now quasi-canonising her, nothing more than vicious, foul-mouthed, racist scum. And, a few years before that she was portrayed openly as a drunken and ill-educated slob with a cringe-inducing voice squealing about the delights of her kebab on national television.

Even our own Prime Minister who has been so busy eulogising Ms Goody of late seems to have forgotten that during the Celebrity Big Brother fiasco, he couldn't keep his mouth shut about what a flaming disgrace she was to Great Britain. And, the irony here is that most people wholly agreed with him at the time - you would have gone a long way to find any newspaper or broadcaster that had a kind, sympathetic word for Jade in early 2007. I've said it before but it bears repeating, politicians really should stick to doing whatever it is that they're suppose to do to justify their existence (ruin the country, it would appear) and leave media reviewing to those of us who actually get paid for it. Because, by and large, we're so much better at it than they are.

Jade Goody was, ultimately, no Joan of Arc-style tragic heroine. But, she wasn't a villain either, ar from it. She was simply a girl with many limits in life but with some ambition who, thanks to an odd set of circumstances and to the complexities of the world we live in, became a (seemingly willing) pawn of the media. A victim of her era as much as anything else, famous for nothing more than being famous.

I'm sure that the red tops will thoroughly vilify Parky for saying what he has. And, indeed, I note that the Daily Mirror already has - a marvellous non-story piece of hypocritical nonsense tripe about how 'Jade's fans' are 'furious' at Michael Parkison. As proof of this, the newspaper provides a quote from one - anonymous online - source (so that no one can check the veracity of it, presumably). And, of course, a quote from Max Clifford. Because Max is never short of a word or two for the newspapers. You may have noticed this.

I have to say however that, as noted above, there are certainly decent arguments to be made that at least some of the complaints about Sir Michael's comments aren't, entirely, without justification. Over the timing of them, in particular. A few weeks grace might, in this case, have been not only the tactful thing to do but, also, the right thing to do.

However, just in case a stringer from any of the tabloids is getting a right chimney-on over this and happens to stumble across this blog during an Internet search for outraged comments (highly unlikely, but you never know), please remember this headline from The Sun newspaper on 3 July 2002. The Sun, let us recall, led the widespread condemnation of Goody's behaviour in the Big Brother house. The paper's showbiz page, Bizarre (written by influential columnist Dominic Mohan), mobilised a campaign for the public to vote her out of the house, for her alleged 'bitchiness' and 'backstabbing.' In 'an astonshingly personal attack' (which is exactly how the Daily Mail described Michael Parkinson's comments) far worse than anything Sir Michael has said, Mohan focused his ire on Jade's figure and distinctive features. And he didn't mince his words: 'The pig with the biggest mouth on TV has finally been nominated for eviction and now YOU have the power to roast her,' he wrote, delightfully, before adding. 'She doesn't deserve to win the £70,000 prize and you can help stop her getting her trotters on it.' Elsewhere in the newspaper during this period, she was also called 'a hippo' and 'a baboon.' And, probably several other unflattering mammals names too.

Goody's crossover from somewhat ephemeral tabloid fodder to a mainstream phenomenon was underlined by an article in the Gruniad's G2 section a few weeks later, around the time she finished fourth in Big Brother III, which questioned why she had become such a hate figure. The paper criticised the provocative language being used against her in other newspapers, giving examples like 'fat-rolled, Michelin girl,' 'vile fishwife,' 'oinker' and, the technically accurate but still dreadfully provocative and mean, 'foul-mouthed ex-shoplifter.' The paper believe it had detected the pungent whiff of snobbery. This blow to Goody's detractors marked a turning of the tide in her treatment by the media at large. Because no newspaper ever likes to be proved wrong. Or, worse, to be out of step with public opinion - there's an old saying, isn't there: 'Hell hath no fury like a British tabloid journalist forced to revise an opinion, in print.' So, the longer she remained in the Big Brother house, they started to change their tune and, for the next few years, she became a kind of tolerated court jester in the 'You'll never believe what that Jade's just said. Cor, isn't she a right one?' way. She was seldom out of the spotlight and, for the most part, was merely patronised and laughed at but was never savaged the way she had been in 2002.

That was, of course, until she went back into Celebrity Big Brother in 2007. Others in the house may have been guilty of worse language directed at Shilpa Shetty but it was Goody - crassly referring to the dignified Indian actress as 'Shilpa Poppadum' - who became the figurehead for the subsequent outpouring of public disgust. She was called 'the most hated woman in Britain'; questions were raised in the House of Commons; there were angry scenes in Delhi which caused an utterly clueless Gordon Brown, on a visit to the country, to make some very unwise and, with the benefit of hindsight, utterly hypocritical, comments; there were calls for the head of Channel Four to resign over the matter. Many analysts were called upon by television shows and the more 'serious' newspapers to ponder what the episode said about modern Britain and why there appeared to be something of a national tendency to 'celebrate ignorance.' Jade's publicist, Max Clifford (remember him?), said that 'it looks like she has ruined a very lucrative career.' A perfume company declined to stock her product range and commentators predicted this was, in PR terms at least, the end for her. Then, a few months later, whilst herself in India (appearing on yet another reality TV show) she was informed, tragically, that she had inoperable cancer. How ironic it is that the very worst moment of this young lady's life was captured, like so much else of it, on camera. At which point, of course, anyone who now said anything remotely negative about her, in any context, was treated like a leper - as though they had just insulted the cherished memory of Mother Theresa or, worse, Princess Diana.

So please do remember, all you Sunners and Mirrorers out there - not just related to this story, but other things too - some of us actually do have memories marginally longer than a goldfish. Even if you don't.