ONE question…

Following my article last week about marginal constituences… Today I received through the post a letter from my local Conservative candidate which begins: “Hammersmith is one of the most marginal seats in the country – your vote here will really matter”… I rest my case your honour. Also enclosed is a form and I am […]

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Review: We Live in Public

Like Starsuckers, reviewed last week, Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public is a confused film. It’s a documentary about ‘the most brilliant dot.com millionaire you’ve never heard of’ [actually that would probably be all of them] ― a chap called Josh Harris. Not that even if you had heard of him, you’d necessarily have recognised […]

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The Fool and the Fool Who Followed Him

Earlier this month, Reuben wrote an article examining the media’s newfound war-weariness and how, owing to the fact that almost every major newspaper backed the invasion of Afghanistan, it can only express itself in impotent calls for better equipment. Now of course, the Iraq war was much more divisive. Many journalists were critical of the […]

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Scottish independence? What’s the point?

Tomorrow Alex Salmond is due to present a White Paper to the Scottish Parliament, setting out plans for a referendum on Scotland’s constitutional position. Independence isn’t going to be the only possibility it suggests, (there’s also going to be an option for what Nick Robinson refers to as ‘independence-lite’ – giving the Scottish Executive powers […]

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When open misogyny apparently passes for debate…

Next Friday my Students’ Union will host a ‘Playboy Mansion’ themed club night. Over the past few weeks at what is still quite a new University for me I have been more and more bothered by the sexualised atmosphere promoted by the union’s venues. But, with my attentions largely elsewhere (on job cuts, the fact that […]

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Copenhagen: History is Watching

It goes without saying that a leader’s first judge will invariably be his or her own people. Presidents and prime ministers live or die, come election time, by their policies, by how well they have adapted to events beyond their control and by how effectively they have handled the three most rudimentary tasks of government: […]

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About UKIP’s new leader…

So…exactly how shocked should we be that the party that spends most of its time denouncing the EU as corrupt and undemocratic now has an unelected Peer of the Realm at the helm?

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Debunking Climategate

Guest post by Jon Small The myth of Climategate can be destroyed with a rudimentary understanding of scientific method Anti global warming conspiracy theorists all over the internet have been having a field day this week with the “climategate” email scandal, the release of thousands of private emails covering a thirteen year period, downloaded by […]

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Why Men’s Societies Could be a Step Forward

Across the left there has been an explosion of mockery and outrage at the formation of men’s societies at Oxford and Manchester universities. This is, in part, because of the reputedly dubious activities of the Manchester men’s society in particular. Equally there has been an instinctive – and to some extent reasonable – reaction against […]

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An Interview with Chris Atkins

Following our review of his new film, Starsuckers, we caught up with BAFTA nominated film maker, Chris Atkins. Atkins made his name as the director of the much admired Taking Liberties, a documentary on the erosion of civil liberties in Blair’s Britain. His latest offering, which premiered this year at the 53rd London Film Festival, is an exposé of the cult of celebrity and media misinformation. Talking to him about celebrity, media and politics, we found out why he finds Tony Blair a terrific liar and and just why Simon Cowell would be a terrifying Prime Minister.

The Third Estate: So tell us about your new film

Chris Atkins: In PR speak: it’s a romp through all the reasons we’re hooked on fame and then an expose of the people who are dealing it to us. I think that’s what I settled on. It a thesis led movie. I wanted to look at why we’re attracted to something so blatantly harmful and to look at the real reasons behind that from a scientific point of view. Then to look behind the curtain of the media, not celebrities themselves but the institutions and individuals who profit from it.

The Third Estate: I was thinking about that. There struck me as being two strands to the film: why we’re affected by fame and how the media manipulate us by abusing this knowledge ― but I wasn’t always clear on the connection. It seemed to have a lot of targets – the public are a target for being gullible. Celebrities for being stupid. The media for doing several things wrong – not reporting hard news, creating a myth of celebrity, giving into PR on the one hand but toppling governments on the other…

Chris Atkins: Yes, it’s a complex, messy area, so to paint an honest picture, you need a complex messy film. My last film, Taking Liberties, people seemed to get more, although Taking Liberties wasn’t a particularly honest picture. It was an argument about how the government, specifically Tony Blair, had taken away our liberties. But that isn’t the case; it’s a very simplified image. In Starsuckers I wanted to be more honest. The problem is it’s very complex. I wanted to build up a thesis to say there are a group of individuals holding the cards here. They pretend they have our better interests at heart but they don’t. That’s the core of it really.

The Third Estate: You do believe there’s almost a cabal of individuals then?

Chris Atkins: No, it’s not in the standard conspiracy theorist sense at all. It’s more of a kind of attitude than a secret society or anything as clear cut as that. A contract should exist between the media and the public. The public trust news media to have their interests at heart ― and they fundamentally don’t. They don’t care about the public; they don’t really care about the truth. And I say this as an insider: I’ve worked in the media for twelve years and we certainly don’t give a stuff about the public. We give a stuff about our wallets and having a jolly good time. Which is fine if you’re honest about it. But if you’re not honest about it, which most of the news media isn’t, they still have this facade of requiring trust and they don’t repay that trust.

The Third Estate: Much of the film reminded me of an aside in Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent where he talks about sports programmes as being a deliberate irrelevance people get sidetracked into so that they aren’t more politically engaged. But isn’t the truth about celebrity less sinister? Isn’t it simply cheaper to report, a by-product of an economic shift in the media?

Chris Atkins: Absolutely. It’s all economic. Well no, it’s initially economic, without question. It’s cheap, it’s reliable, it’s not controversial and it sells papers. People watch it for the reasons we list in the film and it starts delivering that media to us in a very predictable and affordable way. It’s almost replacing content. When you talk to commissioners the first thing they ask is what celebrity is in this television programme ― before they ask you what the programme is about. The celebrity is more important than what they’re surrounded by. That’s a wholesale shift in the way the media is generated. That’s happened in the last five years in both commercial channels and sadly the BBC as well. Yes, it’s initially commercial but once it starts being used for political reasons, for charities and activism, it starts becoming a real problem. It’s not just – here are some entertaining people doing some entertaining things – yes they’ve completely devalued truth in news – some people don’t seem to have a problem with that, I do – but when that moves into the political sphere, good causes, charities ― you’re in a whole heap of shit. Because what people are basically saying is that when celebrities are involved, truth doesn’t matter. Those are the dots we try to join together.

The Third Estate: I was just wondering; you say five years ago ― I’m sorry I’m looking at your Taking Liberties poster – and I’m reminded of the Gilligan affair. Was that perhaps the turning point for news reporting?

Chris Atkins: It certainly was a turning point, but I don’t see that it sits immediately inside this argument. Still it was a turning point on both sides. Gilligan didn’t check his facts. He went out on a limb, made something up. One thing out of 99 other things that were rock solid and they pulled him apart on it. I always look at Gilligan whenever I tempted to guild the lily, which is extremely frequently. So our Live 8 sequence – everything in that is bullet proof – because every night you think Gilligan: the entire argument could be pulled apart by one loose fact or slip of the tongue.

The Third Estate: Which reminds of the question I meant to ask at the start – how are the lawsuits going?

Chris Atkins: We’re in Private Eye this week. We’re front of media news. We had two Guardian front covers that doesn’t mean anything – Private Eye ― front of media news… We haven’t been sued by anyone this week. The whole Carter-Ruck thing was absolutely hilarious. At the time I was half-laughing, half-screaming. They shot themselves in the foot on various levels, one they’re wrong in law, two they managed to pick the world’s most unpopular law firm to initiate the injunction and three, most importantly, they managed to get the timing of the screening wrong. So they started trying to bring an injunction, not realising the press screening had already begun. We had to tell them ‘that’s happening now, 250 journalists are watching your client who’s 50 foot high in a Leicester Square cinema at this moment in time. The cat’s slightly out the bag.’

The Third Estate: So you’re not allowed to reveal anything that was bleeped out during the Max Clifford sequence?

Chris Atkins: No, absolutely not. For two reasons – one is obviously a libel point of view. I can’t back it up. I don’t know if it’s true or not. It’s Max rambling. Secondly, more importantly, I don’t want the film to become a source of celebrity gossip as we are critiquing sources of salacious, celebrity gossip. We would have been quite rightly burned by the critics if we had. The purpose of that sequence is to show what Max Clifford is prepared to do to protect his critics, which is contrary to the chubby nice guy image he portrays in the media.

The Third Estate: On matters litigious: you take a small shot at the Press Complaints Commission…

Chris Atkins: I’d hoped it was as big a shot as I could, but…

The Third Estate: Sorry. I noticed that one of your contributors, Nick Davies, was in the news recently. The News of the World has just beaten off the story he published in the Guardian about their phone tapping techniques after a PCC investigation?

Chris Atkins: Well they would, wouldn’t they? An organisation controlled by newspaper editors comes down on the side of newspaper editors.

The Third Estate: So would you support a state run PCC?

Chris Atkins: No, I’d support an independent run PCC. We manage to have these for all sorts of things; we have an independent police complaints commission. We’re about to have something independent for MPs and banks. Why not for the Press? Why can’t you and I do it? This is what the newspapers are terrified of. The PCC is purportedly there to protect the public from the press. It’s not. Everyone knows it’s not. It’s there to protect the press. As always the public suffers. You have newspaper editors winding up to tell you how scared they are by the adjudication of the PCC and reporters on the ground flatly contradicting that. We’ve not heard anything from the PCC about the revelations in the film and I think that proves our point.

The Third Estate: Going back a bit: you mentioned the character of the film. A lot of the character of the film comes from your voiceover, which is slightly grating – the kind of voice that you associate with voices that are deliberately patronising you.

Chris Atkins: Yes, that was actually deliberate.

The Third Estate: I guessed, but I was wondering whether you were trying to anger your audience into reacting? What was the thinking?

Chris Atkins: It’s a fair point. People have said he’s patronising, he’s glib and annoying and yes that was all quite deliberate. Whether I would make those deliberate choices again, I don’t know. What I was trying to do was create a Tony Blair. I needed a central villain. I didn’t want it to be about any one media corporation; or about Rupert Murdoch or Viacom or Max Clifford. I wanted it to be about all of them and none of them. So I created a satirical, ironic entity to bind them all together. He’s not there to be liked. There’s an artistic question opened up as to whether that’s a sensible thing to do: to have a central narrator you’re supposed to hate. That happens all the time in literature, in fiction. I’ve never seen it done before in a doc. Some people like the concept, some people absolutely hate it. I had a situation where I was trying to pull together a thesis about something most people believe they know a lot about. If I was to present it in a straight way – ‘I’m Chris Atkins I think celebrity culture’s bad’ – that would be absolutely ghastly. Who am I to tell people not to trust the media? So I wanted to turn it on its head and make it flippant. The voice encapsulates the editor of The Sun, the editor of the BBC News website when he puts up an article on Cheryl Cole rather than a news article.

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