To what extent is the relationship between journalists and celebrities symbiotic?

The exact definition of Symbiosis describes close interactions between two or more different species. It is different from regular interactions between species, because in a symbiotic relationship, the two species in the relationship live together. Many organisms are involved in symbiotic relationships because this interaction provides benefits to both species. I believe we have become this pure definition when describing the interactions between modern day journalists and celebrities. We have become so comfortable in our own worlds, where we have designed and functioned our news values and everybody else’s news values also to be fitting with the ones we created. The relationship is so comfortable that journalists have become best friends with celebrities in a certain way where they are a never-ending trove of stories that can plaster TV shows or make headlines in tabloid newspapers. The relationship is unhealthy for one part of the relationship, but the reason this has happened is because celebrities need the coverage to be celebrities. Since 1920 we have changed the rules on what is news and what isn’t so now a general public absorbs this ‘news’ as if it is life changing. (O’Neill, 2011)

‘In 1918, in a magazine devoted to chronicling the lives of movie stars, an up-and-coming starlet named Lila Lee posed for a publicity photo on her hands and knees, next to a bucket. In the image, the comely brunette is looking up, her expression sanguine and slightly surprised, as if she didn’t expect the photographer from Motion Picture to catch her scrubbing the floor with her hair perfectly coiffed. The copy focuses on her love of hard work, but the implicit message is that modern gossip rag cliché: Stars they’re just like us.’ (Copeland, 2011). The image of celebrities is something that has only changed throughout time. It started just after the second world war when movie stars were the celebrities of that forgotten age. But the image of these celebrities could only be brought to the forefront and put in front of the whole world to see, through the power of journalism. Hard press adapted the news values of this time period and allowed celebrities be brought into our homes through the radio and newspapers and eventually television.

The news media, imperfect as they are, constitute the central nervous system of our society and communications infrastructure for the culture. “We are the essential plumbing — we carry useful information, including information on changing values, priorities, and shared challenges”. (Harris, 2004). As journalists we are the backbone, throughout time society has relied on the media through times of need. Seventy years ago society trusted journalists to bring them the hard truth but we adapted to feature celebrities because people have role models and they have a huge hunger for twisted news values. News values that the press created because it made money. Big dollar and pound signs appeared in investors of journalism back in the late twenties all the way to modern journalism that allowed celebrities to become a large part of society.

Fast forwarding to the 21st century it has changed dramatically, but in the wrong direction. Celebrity is now one of the most common news values in today’s media, entire publishing’s are dedicated to the subject, there is no hard news in it. But somehow from the 20th century to the 21st it has remained in the public interest. It could be argued that the media is creating a culture that targets the more academically challenged among readers for the purpose of making a profit. This type of news also focuses on the differences between not only the reader’s academic abilities, but their social class as well. Celebrities are often seen as being of a higher class which gives the impression to readers that they should be revered. However, it is more recent years those social classes are being rejected and now those from lower classes, that are often seen on reality television shows, are also considered celebrities as well, making the reader feel as if they can relate (Tyler and Bennett, 2009).   It could also be said that the media is too concerned with creating fake ‘personalities’ from any person with the tiniest hint of fame to politicians where rather than focusing on debates and information our focus is drawn to the personal and trivial. On the other hand, the media could simply be a victim of supply and demand. Individuals are looking for greater access and engagement with the life stories or views of the celebrities they see every day through todays media which results in the phenomenon that is celebrity news actually having true values. (O’Neill, 2011).

Tabloid newspapers are one of the causes of this fanaticism with celebrity news. There is no doubt that the role of newspapers has changed – they no longer break news; that’s the prerogative of social media, the internet or 24-hr news. Yet, out of the 10 established national dailies, only five in circulation around the UK certainly in the past could be described as ‘quality papers’ These are the specialist Financial Times, aimed at the business community, the more liberal Independent, the right-wing Daily Telegraph, The Times, now owned by News International along with the red-top The Sun and the slightly more left of centre Guardian. In 2010 the launch of the I newspaper tried to change the regular format by being different, a sort of sub section of the independent that was meant to be snappy and concise for the modern day reader.  The two mid-market papers are both right-wing: The Daily Mail and the Daily Express. Then there are the red-tops: The Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Star. Some, like the Star and the Express who are owned by porn baron Richard Desmond are more down-market than others. For some journalists, readers, media commentators and academics, there is an acceptance – weary or otherwise – that ‘the tabloids are full of shit.’ (Monck, 2008). The red tops pure focus is on scandal, xenophobia, misogyny, bingo scratch cards and, most of all, celebrity gossip.

As journalists we use a right of free speech and free press that gives us a nearly “unbounded” right to cover the banal, the bizarre, and the shamelessly self-promoting. The choice of whether to do so is one that journalists make, and I want to explore whether there are elements of responsible decision-making, or responsibility for the choices we make that affect the decisions of journalists

The biggest point is that celebrity coverage sells the whole range of it. As a general rule, journalists will attract more, not fewer readers, viewers, or listeners if they include some element of celebrity coverage in the buffet they offer to the public. This is a fact that flows, that must be feared, from the same primal instinct that makes drivers slow down to watch an accident in the opposite side of a highway and the more cars, ambulances, and stretchers the slower they will go. Journalists could argue that celebrity coverage is smart business. Further, I will stipulate that, by extension, competitive pressures provide a plausible justification for celebrity coverage if one journalist doesn’t do it then their competitor will and that will be to their disadvantage. (Harris, 2004)

Much of the public is interested in coverage of celebrities. What they’re doing and with whom; their rise, their fall, and even their time in the gutter. But are the news media acting in the public interest by giving the public a steady diet of its baser desires? The system works by itself. You can never take one piece out, the public will never stop wanting to find out what a celebrity is doing because that is the generation we live in. The journalist will never stop looking for the story because they are afraid to miss out on something that is ‘news’, if one journalist suddenly refuses there will always be someone behind him who will take the unethical risks or the pure unprofessionalism that someone might not be comfortable with doing, so they can get the story and get paid. Finally, the celebrity will never stop being a celebrity until the media decides they are not. The celebrity relies on the journalist because they created them.

The tabloid newspaper’s relationship with celebrities is one of the main roots of the symbiotic relationship, with Murdoch’s News Corporation owning many of the big red tops in the UK it relies on the idea of the celebrity to make sales. Tabloid journalism is a vital site for the playing out of celebrity gossip. Dahlgren and Sparks (1992) has even gone so far as suggesting that celebrity stories explain ‘the apparent popularity of the tabloid press in the UK’. Certainly the importance attached to celebrity in the Sun and the Mirror justifies an examination of the way in which discourses are formed around this subject, especially as in spite of a recent surge in analysis of ‘celebrity culture’ as a contemporary phenomenon In many ways, stories about celebrities in the Sun and the Mirror do convey the notion that stars and personalities are part of a higher world, serving to build a contrast between the dull routines assumed to govern everyday life and the exciting existence of those in the limelight (Johansson, 2007). The celebrities populating both papers, ranging from global stars to minor TV personalities or members of the 112 public, famous for particular achievements, are presented with attributes signalling their difference from ordinary people.

Hugh Grant has had a long and tenuous career as an actor in Hollywood playing some great characters as well as being in some bad movies. His career though has been defined by three big interactions with the media and journalists. Interactions that have maybe made him look bad or as if the media has tried to dethrone him from his celebrity life. In 1996, Grant won substantial damages from News (UK) Ltd over what his lawyers called a highly defamatory article published in January 1995. The company’s now-defunct newspaper, Today, had falsely claimed that Grant verbally abused a young extra with a “foul-mouthed tongue lashing” on the set of his film ‘The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain’.

On 27 June 1995, Grant was arrested in Los Angeles, California, during a police vice operation not far from Sunset Boulevard for engaging in oral sex in a public place with Hollywood prostitute Divine Brown. He pleaded no contest and was fined $1,180, placed on two years’ probation, and was ordered to complete an AIDS education program by Robert J. Sandoval.

The arrest occurred about two weeks before the release of Grant’s first major studio film, Nine Months, which he was scheduled to promote on several American television shows. After their arrest, both were released to have their cases heard later. But it was Divine Brown who the press really wanted to get to, her unvarnished story probably the more exciting read. Writing in the Guardian, a British tabloid reporter explained how he and his fellow “hacks in macs” tried to get to Brown first. It was the News of the World, however, who got the scoop, paying Brown a reported $100,000 for her story. That’s how much a media outlet would go out of its way to get the full story on the event involving Grant, the Murdoch empire paid her that much money just to get a full on account of what happened and for it to become news worthy and in the public interest (Tressider, 2012).

His most famous of confrontations with the media was his role in the phone hacking scandal. In April 2011 Grant published an article in the New Statesman entitled “The Bugger, Bugged” which was about a conversation following an earlier encounter with Paul McMullan, a former journalist and paparazzo for News of the World. In unguarded comments which were secretly taped by Grant, McMullan alleged that editors at the Daily Mail and News of the World, particularly Andy Coulson, had ordered journalists to engage in illegal phone tapping and had done so with the full knowledge of senior British politicians. McMullan also said that every British Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher onwards had cultivated a close relationship with Rupert Murdoch and his senior executives. He stressed the friendship between David Cameron and Rebekah Brooks.

When asked by Grant whether Cameron had encouraged the Metropolitan Police to “drag their feet” on investigating illegal phone tapping by Murdoch’s journalists, McMullan agreed this had happened, and stated that police themselves had taken bribes from tabloid journalists: “20 per cent of the Met has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks. So why would they want to open up that can of worms?… And what’s wrong with that, anyway? It doesn’t hurt anyone particularly.” Grant’s article attracted considerable interest, due to both the revelatory content of the taped conversation, and the novelty of Grant himself “turning the tables” on a tabloid journalist. Whilst the allegations regarding the News of the World continued to receive coverage in broadsheets and similar media such as BBC Radio 4, it was only with the revelation that the voicemail of the by then murdered Millie Dowler had been hacked, and evidence for her murder enquiry had been deleted, that the coverage turned from media interest to widespread public outrage. Grant became something of a spokesman against Murdoch’s News Corporation, culminating in a performance on BBC television’s Question Time in July 2011(National Archives, 2011).

Grant is quoted saying this on the BBC show, “It’s been fascinating to have a little excursion into another world. I really needed that and also to be dealing with real life instead of creating synthetic life, which is what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years” (Sam Asi, 2012). It could be argued that journalists enable the ‘synthetic’ lives that many celebrities lead. By creating stories or adding adapted elements to stories to make them more enticing for the reader. They are not only creating an exciting, colourful existence for the reader, but for the celebrity themselves. In the case of Hugh Grant, it could be said that that in his early days, Grant was considered a villain when it came to the world of journalism and this was certainly portrayed in right-wing media. This would have had an effect on his behaviour towards journalists and the media and this can be seen in the numerous negative encounters he has had with members of the press.

It is common for celebrities to be put on a pedestal, separating them from the general public when it comes to the media. Film stars are often seen as otherworldly and sometimes a different species which is what perhaps makes their news so sought after (Conboy, 2014). This can make it difficult for celebrities to have positive relationships with the media as stories can often be based on hearsay rather than fact, which can often be the cause of the divide between them and the public. This type of celebrity gossip is widely popular among readers as it provides a stimulant for conversation between social groups (Johannson, 2006). Celebrity news is a much more neutral topic of conversation between peers, rather than the often controversial topics that arise when discussing politics for example. It could be argued that this type of news is the buffer that begins much conversation, as well as a topic that most people can relate to. Hugh Grant however, made a step to decrease the separation between him and the public by giving evidence in the Leveson Enquiry to help expose the phone hacking scandal (White, 2011). This would have greatly increased his popularity with the general public which would make it risky to publish damning stories about the actor for fear of a negative reaction from the readers.

This essay can conclude, the relationship between celebrities and journalists is symbiotic through the way in which one relies on the other. This interdependent relationship is often seen to be giving the public the stories that they demand which helps to determine what types of stories are written and about who. With journalism both the creator and reflector of the taste of its readers, it is no surprise that once a story about a celebrity sticks, it can often have a lasting effect (O’Neill, 2011). Hugh Grant is the perfect example of a celebrity that has had a turbulent relationship with the media, and journalists in particular and he clearly demonstrates the ways in which one can affect the other, both positively and negatively.

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