The Ulrika Jonsson story represents a new low in confessional journalism.
Just when you thought you had a breather from obsessive news stories about some celebrity’s private life, along comes weeks of coverage devoted to a blonde television presenter’s sexual history.
Honest, Ulrika Jonsson’s account of her life, was extracted in the Daily Mail in mid-October (1). If you missed the edited highlights, details of her affair with Sven-Goran Eriksson, England’s football manager, and her claim that an unnamed man had raped her 14 years ago, were front-page news across the national press.
Jonsson’s mother revealed tit-bits about her daughter’s sex-life traumas in the London Evening Standard, speculating: ‘I don’t know if she is taking revenge on Sven.’ (2) The celebrity’s confessions were broadcast on a Channel 4 programme Ulrika Jonsson: The Trouble with Men, and she appeared on ITV News at Ten after presenting her ITV dating show Mr Right (3).
There should be a new word for such relentless self-exposure – Ulrikitis.
Yet Ulrika Jonsson is not the first celebrity to exchange her privacy for publicity. She is to gain a reported £1million fee from a publishing company for such revelations – and like many public figures, she has clearly decided to benefit financially from a media industry willing to pay up for celebrities to confess all.
What is more worrying than Ulrika’s confessions are the editors who have given her life story such prominence in the news for weeks on end. Scrutiny of the most sordid, intimate aspects of Ulrika Jonsson’s private life represents a new low in the way our confessional culture impacts on domestic news coverage.
By revelling in speculation about who did what to whom and when, Jonsson, her family, her TV agent, ex-boyfriends, and ex-lovers have been encouraged by the media to expose, ad nauseam, the emotional highs and lows of life in celebrity-land.
Some people conclude that the life story of celebrities serve as modern parables of our day. Out goes Aesop’s Fables and in comes Jonsson’s foibles. This description implies that the coverage of Jonsson v Sven, Nancy and ‘Mr X’ is just the modern way of discussing old-fashioned debates about morality.
But as Observer columnist Mary Riddell commented, ‘Intrusive stories are ubiquitous, but this time some boundary of viciousness has been breached. The appetite for scandal, however tawdry, has increased in line with the growing cult of celebrity, to the point where an Ulrika memoir is greeted as reverently as if Moses has emerged with a sequel to the Ten Commandments’ (4).
The TV presenter has said she was surprised at the high level of interest in her book. Edwina Currie’s revelations about a former prime minister only managed to dominate news headlines for a week or so. Popstar Nicole Appleton’s claim that she aborted Robbie William’s baby seemed to be relegated to a couple of days in the news.
But the attention given to Jonsson’s life story is hardly surprising, given the vast amounts of coverage that newspapers have recently given to so many public figures’ confessions. Out of the current crop, only Currie’s autobiography could reasonably be said to be worthy of a lead news story – John Major’s government policies involved making scapegoats of those who had extra-marital affairs.
The rest of the celebrity diaries are to do with minor stars. However hard they try and combine bedroom revelations with career revival, their sex life has no bearing on their public work.
Jonsson is accused of not having done the right thing by talking about her rape and keeping her attacker’s name anonymous. TV presenters Richard and Judy decided that women like Ulrika had ‘to make a decision – you either talk honestly and openly about something you know will be enormously controversial or you just don’t go there’ (5).
Writing in the Spectator, Stephen Glover argued that: ‘Ulrika has done a bad thing by exposing him in this way [by saying she had been ‘date raped’ but not naming her attacker], and the papers have hardly distinguished themselves. If she really was raped, she should have reported it to the police.’ He added: ‘But to convict him in this way is to ruin him…. It can only be a matter of time before the man is identified.’ (6)
But when celebrities leave out parts of their life story, this fuels the flames of fame, providing endless room for speculation by others. Innuendo and sex, combined with celebrities who have suffered some kind of trauma and who consent to publicity, are subjects chosen by editors to become national news. Why would anyone care how Ulrika decides to recount her life if her story wasn’t transformed from a bit of watercooler gossip to the national headlines?
The rise in the number of public figures willing to confess all is confusing what privacy means. At the same time as professional media organisations such as the Press Complaints Commission, the Broadcasting Standard Commission and the Independent Television Commission devise new media codes and judges are developing the law to define what privacy from the media should mean, celebrities such as Ulrika Jonsson are talking non-stop about their private lives in the media anyway.
Calls for privacy codes are often justified in terms of raising standards of journalism. But when our confessional culture spawns both a desire by newspapers to fill their pages with endless sordid details about minor celebrities’ private lives, and celebrities more than willing to confess their most intimate stories to the world, no regulatory code can cure Ulrikitis.
Tessa Mayes is the author of the spiked-report ‘Restraint or Revelation? free speech and privacy in a confessional age’.
(1) ‘Svennis seduced me in my kitchen’, Ulrika Jonsson, Daily Mail, 13 October 2002
(2) ‘I begged Ulrika not to tell all about Sven says mother’, London Evening Standard, 11 October 2002
(3) ‘No getting away from it’, Diary, Media Guardian online, 24 October 2002
(4) ‘Named and defamed’, Mary Riddell, Observer, 27 October 2002
(5) Column, Richard and Judy, Daily Express, 26 October 2002
(6) ‘Whatever the buzz, the Times is stuck in a groove’, Stephen Glover, Spectator, 26 October 2002
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