Hot goss: what Naomi said to the weird African prez!

The cynical hauling of Naomi Campbell into The Hague shows that it is the powers-that-be, not the little people, who are most in thrall to celebs.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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When future historians look back on the early twenty-first century, they will surely describe yesterday’s appearance by Naomi Campbell at the Sierra Leone war crimes tribunal as one of the weirder events in an already weird historical period. ‘Wait’, their readers will say, ‘a woman who modelled undercrackers was invited to give evidence on war crimes?’. Some will be so incredulous that they’ll demand photographic evidence. Thankfully there’s plenty of that, showing Naomi ‘dressed in a cream outfit, hair drawn into a Sixties beehive’, as the London Evening Standard put it yesterday, smashing together fashion, celebrity and ‘genocide’ in a way that even the makers of Brüno would have considered OTT.

The transformation of The Hague into a Hello!-style gossip chamber, complete with quotes from Oprah and info about Ms Campbell’s love of diamonds, was an act of extraordinary cynicism. It was a transparently desperate attempt by The Hague to drum up some international interest in its trial of former Liberian president Charles Taylor by subpoenaing a pap-friendly face to the witness stand. But in some ways, we should be thankful it happened – for it has shone a light on what really drives the cult of celebrity today, and who is really responsible for elevating celebs from the plane of mortality to the realm of super-important beings. (Clue: it wasn’t the allegedly thick public.)

The calling of Ms Campbell to the witness stand captures the superiority complex of The Hague and its various tribunals on The Dark Continent (Africa) and The Dark Part Of Our Continent (Yugoslavia). The Hague justified the supermodel’s appearance on the basis that if it could be proven that in 1997 Taylor really did give her diamonds after a dinner in South Africa with Mandela, Mia Farrow, Jemima Khan and other assorted airheads, then we will finally know that he is evil! We will know he possessed ‘blood diamonds’, that he got them in return for his arming of rebel groups across the border in Sierra Leone, and that this Liberian lunatic was therefore clearly up to his knees in the blood of Sierra Leoneans. In The Hague’s view, their wars (but not ours, of course) are never about politics or territory; it’s all just blood, diamonds, money, greed, hacked limbs, skulls, etc. That they invest so much importance in a pouch secretly given by a president to a supermodel speaks volumes about their view of African people’s mad motivations and weird, so un-Western wars.

Yet their obsession with the Taylor-Campbell ‘mild flirtations’ also reflects their hope that by dragging Naomi’s sexy black ass into court they might get the world to turn its head and pay attention. ‘[Normally] the public gallery is empty, today it is full’, said one court official. At last there was a ‘media frenzy’ and ‘media scrum’. This was the war-crimes equivalent of when some big business launches a new product by getting Kerry Katona or Katie Price to pose half-naked with it in Trafalgar Square – only in this instance the celeb was subpoenaed against her will rather than bought off, and she wasn’t promoting a new roll-on deodorant but the trial of a former African leader. It was forced PR designed to advertise via the media a Western institution’s seriousness about tackling ‘genocide’. As a campaigner from the anti-war NGO Global Witness excitedly said: ‘The international interest generated by this episode has thrown a welcome spotlight back on the issue [of blood diamonds and war].’ Or as the defence lawyer for Taylor said to the supermodel: ‘Many people hadn’t [heard of Liberia] until you turned up today.’

It was striking how quickly a supposedly serious trial got bogged down in the sort of tittle tattle that normally appears in Heat. The QC for the defence cited from a transcript of The Oprah Show. We learned that Campbell frequently receives gifts from strangers, often via concierges, and that she no longer gets on with her former agent, Carol White. Indeed, there’s an argument to be made that this whole debate springs from a fallout between White and Campbell. White will soon give evidence against Campbell, and by extension Taylor, by telling MY SIDE OF THE STORY: EXCLUSIVE from that starry Mandela dinner. The defence QC asked Campbell if she thought White was seeking personal vengeance. This is in essence a celeb bitchslap played out in a war crimes trial rather than on the Sun’s ‘Bizarre’ page. Next up: Kerry vs Katie at the Karadzic trial.

Of course, the media helped to turn this into a trial more about Naomi than about Sierra Leone. So Sky News broke the proceedings down into bite-sized chunks titled ‘The Dinner’ (who said what and flirted with whom), ‘The Gift’ (who knocked on Naomi’s door), and ‘The Breakfast’ (what Naomi said to Mia and Carol over eggs the morning after). It was Come Dine With Me meets Sex and the City meets The World’s Worst Dictators as both the court and the sudden deluge of court reporters conspired to sex up a war crimes trial with an intense injection of celebrity.

This all reveals something important about celebrity culture today. We’re frequently told that the reason celebs are taking over the world is because the little people – that’s you and me – desperately need our daily fix of Katona carry on or Girls Aloud gossip. Yet while we might look at pictures of celebs and laugh at their antics, it is the authorities who have turned them into creatures of politics and history. It is government officials who get celebrity chefs to front major school makeover campaigns; who push celebs forward as the ‘voices of Africa’; who queue up to have their snap taken with an Angelina or a Kylie; who ask celebs to advise on the health service (Fiona Phillips), to retrain Home Office staff (Ruby Wax), to front the PM’s Implementation Unit (Kris Murrin).

The driving force behind today’s cult of celebrity is a powerful sense of lack in public and political life. Leaders feeling that they lack legitimacy and a connection with the public increasingly turn to still-popular celebs in the hope that some of their cred will rub off. And now we have the extraordinary situation where a war crimes tribunal, which is supposed to embody the ultimate authority of the West over the darker parts of the globe, also has to call in celebs in order to create a bit of public traction. The sight of a supermodel in the witness stand revealed much about the crisis of mission even amongst the institutions of one-time Western supremacy.

In a sense, having a celeb play a role in the trial of war crimes brings to a logical conclusion what I have previously called ‘celebrity colonialism‘. There has been some criticism of The Hague for bringing Campbell to court – but from the same commentators who cheer Matt Damon when he calls for the US military to go to Darfur, or Mia Farrow when she has meetings with the controversial Blackwater security firm to discuss going to Sudan, or George Clooney when he describes the war in the Congo as the ‘deadliest’ thing since the Holocaust. If you champion celebs when they agitate for war, you can’t be surprised when they’re also called upon to help punish alleged crimes committed in war. I say: no more celebrity colonialism.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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