Why the John Terry affair kicked politics off the pitch
Welcome to CeleBritain, where more of us seem to care passionately about who is England football captain than which dullard politician is PM.
For more than a week we have been bombarded with questions about the John Terry affair: was he fit to be England’s football captain, should he stay/resign/be sacked/shot, what else has he been up to, how much did he pay Wayne Bridge’s ex to keep schtum, and on and on.
But after all this, it is worth reflecting on a bigger question that has not been asked nearly enough. Why did the Terry affair come to dominate public debate in Britain for a week everywhere from the front pages to the radio phone-ins, shunting every big issue out of way like the man himself defending a corner? What does it tell us about the state of play in our public life?
It obviously was not the bare facts of the story that made it such big news. ‘Spoilt stupid footballer is unfaithful to wife’ is about as shocking as a dog-bites-man (or maybe defender-kicks-forward) story.
This has led to complaints about such sports-related trivia making the headlines ahead of ‘real’ news such as the fallout from the Haiti disaster, the Afghan War or the coming UK General Election. But there is more going on here than simply the elevation of the trivial over the serious.
First, it is the collapse of meaningful public and political debate about ‘real’ issues that has allowed gossip and scandal and petty banalities to take over the field of play. That is why far more people appear energised by the question of who should be England captain than the small matter of who should be prime minister. The contemporary cults of football and celebrity have both been inflated in importance to fill the gap where our society’s public life ought to be. Against that background the petty personal scandal of a fallen celebrity footballer becomes a natural to make big news.
Second, the problem this poses is not just that trivia gets in the way of serious news and debate. It is that the inflated celebrity culture becomes the focus through which we argue about and decide society’s attitudes to the important issues of today. As it becomes harder to tell where reality television ends and the ‘real’ news begins, celebrity becomes a stand-in for politics.
The furore over John Terry has been a prime example of how celebrity culture is brought on as a substitute for something else, in a situation where no politician can engage with the public. We live in an age when there are no clear alternatives or choices on offer on big political questions from the economic crisis to Afghanistan. One offshoot of this demise of meaningful debate has been the tendency to turn cultural ephemera into the stuff of major pseudo-conflicts, about which many will strike apparently passionate poses. Hence the heated rows over which contestant or celebrity should win the reality TV shows, or which famous ‘personality’ is the real villain/victim in divorces and break-ups. The internet discussion boards and social networking sites have become the new public forums where the people thrash out these vital matters.
This is what happened in the John Terry affair, where people have taken sides with an apparent commitment and feeling that is entirely absent from any opinion poll on the General Election. The appearance of ‘Team Terry’ t-shirts and web groups, following the slightly less popular ‘Team Bridge’ ones, was modelled exactly on celebrity bust-ups. I am told by those who know this stuff that the first such divide was between rival fans of ‘Team [Brad] Pitt’ and ‘Team [Jennifer] Aniston’ when that famous pair split. More recently, and pertinently perhaps, we have witnessed the widely-publicised clashes between ‘Team Pete [Andre]’ and ‘Team [Katie] Price’. JT, thy name is Jordan.
Worse, in CeleBritain and beyond these showbiz scandals have become, not just a substitute for serious news, but the way that important issues are now played out and viewed in the public arena. The Terry story really took off, for instance, after his failed attempt to impose an injunction preventing the media reporting his affairs, which provoked the press to dig the dirt on him with renewed fury. This is typical of the trend for big questions about privacy and free speech to be decided, not in the open court of public opinion, but in the closed courts of celebrity privacy and libel cases.
Terry’s own case may have been thrown out by the judge because his plea was too stupidly self-serving – he did not deny the stories, but demanded they be suppressed to protect his public image and sponsorship deals. However, celebrity court cases look set to continue to shape the debate about privacy and an open press that affects us all. We are left facing the worst of both words – an increasingly voyeuristic media obsessed with the personal and the petty, and increasingly interventionist judges taking into their unaccountable hands the right to decide what can be reported. All of which is of considerable concern to those of us who want to defend the idea both of a proper public sphere where we are free to debate everything that matters, and a private sphere where people are free to live and think as they see fit.
The Terry affair also became the basis for a confused cauldron of arguments about many other issues to do with public morality, abortion, the relationship between adults and children, leadership, ‘Broken Britain’ and the ‘greedy society’. As spiked’s sports columnist Duleep Allirajah argued last week, none of this has anything to do with his fitness or lack of it to be the captain of a football team. But it could well have repercussions for shaping the social and political climate in which the rest of us live our lives.
This is only the latest episode in a long-running saga of the celebriti-fication of life. In recent years, as previously discussed on spiked, the celebrity circus has hosted major controversies about everything from African aid or British racism to child obesity or child abuse, with figures such as Madonna and Jamie Oliver bestriding the stage (see When Celebrities Rule the Earth, by Mick Hume). It is not hard to see why this could have happened. Ours is a society without genuine heroes and leaders it can respect, or engaging debates on big issues. Since culture abhors a vacuum as much as nature does, something has to fill the public space, and so popular celebrity culture has been able to colonise the media and beyond almost without trying.
Unable to beat the celebs, politicians have surrendered and tried to join ’em, either by adapting to their emotional stage style or simply by associating with the stars in the hope that some glitz might rub off on their own dull suits. Even Gordon Brown, the New Labour prime minister who came to office in 2007 promising an end to celebrity politics and ‘a new seriousness’, has spent the past couple of years desperately trying to go native in celeb land – asking a breakfast TV presenter to join his government of talents, sharing a phone conference on Africa with Angelina Jolie, making a statement about the mental health of reality star Susan Boyle TV quicker than about the release on health grounds of the Libyan convicted of the Lockerbie bombing, etc etczzz. Little good all this debasement has done our statesmen, however, since their new celebrity friends tend to be listened to precisely because they are not discredited politicians. Anybody out there keen to sign up to Team Brown on Facebook?
Since football became fashionable once more among the middle classes, it has been a prime target for politicians seeking a bit of celebrity cred, nowhere more so than around the England team under Fabio Capello. For some reason, however, few seemed keen to line up alongside England captain and alleged philandering role model Terry over the past week. One government minister Mike O’Brien did Twitter that Terry’s eventual sacking was ‘crass’ and that Capello had caved in to tabloid pressure – not something New Labour could ever be accused of, surely, in its attempts to mix politics and showbiz.
There is no need to get too sanctimonious or snobbish about celebrity culture; it gives many people a lot of enjoyment and anything that is fun is fine in these miserabilist times. In its own terms the Terry debacle has been highly entertaining, and it would take a heart of stone not to be moved to laughter by the absurdities of it.
The problem is the absence of any decent defenders of proper politics, to stop the celebrity circus turning serious public issues of free speech or morality into another reality TV soap opera. The charmless Terry may have been removed from his post at the end of a mad week, but only when these celebrity scandals are replaced in the centre circle of public life will we know that sanity is in charge.
Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large.