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Selling out celebrities

By Mark S. Lawson - posted Friday, 22 February 2008

Some years ago an activist acquaintance asked me if anyone was interested in the finance news that, at the time, was creeping into the evening television bulletin.

“Whatever happened to the real news?” he asked.

By real news I think he meant, in part, stories about poverty, suffering, acts of discrimination being revealed, aboriginal issues and politics - the concerns of the educated elite. Everyone has his or her own definition of what they consider to be interesting news, but one type of news is winning out - celebrity gossip.


Will Britney get her children back? Are Angelina and Brad still together? Paris Hilton has shown, yet again, that she is seriously in want of education. And on and on. As the events below show, it seems to be getting worse.

  • After actor Heath Ledger met an accidental death recently, the paparazzi hassled his parents while they went about the sad business of burying their son.
  • When Britney Spears left a Los Angeles medical centre, where she was admitted for psychiatric treatment, on the drive home her car was surrounded by photographers whenever it stopped at a set of lights.
  • An otherwise completely unknown teenager, Corey Worthington, made international news because he held a party. The party was attended by 500 people, resulted in a major police response and trashed his parent’s house. For all of this he was unapologetic. Interviewed on current affairs shows he refused to take off his sunglasses. Even journalists were astonished at the amount of media coverage these antics generated. One part of this story was just how coverage this story managed to generate.

Celebrities have been hassled by paparazzi for decades. The London tabloids in particular have long been shameless in their pursuit of the Royals and media stars. Minor events - such as authors being discovered to have given false names and identities to promote their works of fiction - have generated publicity far in excess of their significance. But I don’t recall the media throng, in America or here, going as far as any of the examples cited above.

A little before all of these events, The Bulletin - long an institution in the Australian media - ceased publication. Circulation and ad revenue had been falling for decades. The Bulletin’s space on the news stands was quickly filled by other magazines, including the likes of the successful OK! magazine which deals mainly in celebrity gossip.

Of course, The Bulletin did not die merely because it failed to pander to the public’s apparently insatiable appetite for celebrity gossip. Mostly it died because the niche it filled - news analysis, quality writing and sections on the arts and business - had been taken over by cheaper newspapers. The dailies even produce free colour magazines with their weekend edition. But the magazine’s demise underlines just how much the media scene has changed, and is changing, with a major part of that change being the shift towards what can only be described as gossip about colourful personalities.

These personalities may have considerable talent - actors and singers - or they may have little more to their credit than a talent for self promotion and for looking good in pictures, such as our old friend Paris.


This sort of trivia is creeping into radio, television, and even the daily broadsheets. As noted, there is even a section of the magazine market which specialises in celebrity news - a section which, incidentally, has only emerged in Australia in the past few years. Magazines such as New Idea and Women’s Day have printed lots of celebrity gossip, but have not specialised in it.

One major reason for this trend may be that the general media in all its forms is finding the competition for consumer attention is now much tougher than it has ever been. Computer games, Internet chat rooms, endless specialist television channels, Ipods, MP3 players and mobile phones that seem to do everything, are but a few of the distractions.

The media is responding to this segmenting consumer audience by either specialising or beefing up their general appeal, with the more successful adaptation being specialisation. Despite the demise of The Bulletin the magazine sector is doing very well, thanks to a host of titles specialising on everything from weddings to fishing, through to computer games and women’s health.

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About the Author

Mark Lawson is a senior journalist at the Australian Financial Review. He has written The Zen of Being Grumpy (Connor Court).

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