Following our review of his new film, Starsuckers, we caught up with BAFTA-nominated director, Chris Atkins. Atkins made his name with 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 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.
The Third Estate: After the press screening, you mentioned that the material for the film lacked a top or bottom and I was wondering if, say, a Marxist had come along they would say ‘Well there is a bottom, it’s embedded power structures etc, etc’ but you’re not heading down that line?
Chris Atkins: When I said it didn’t have a top or bottom, I felt that was more to do with a creative film making problem. We had ten points in the thesis so it was deciding in which order do they come? Actually the order is quite straight forward. It’s where the fuck do you start, where the fuck do you end? That’s what I meant. In terms of ‘embedded in power structures’ ― celebrity is the face of capitalism. That’s a given. It is a mechanism for selling and giving an illusion of contentment. I believe all the arguments we gave on how celebrity is a means of control are essentially reheating the same argument that capitalism and money are a means of control. So yes I would concur that it has a starting point in the ability of those with power to control those without.
The Third Estate: A section of the film talks about celebrities in the Lithuanian parliament. I was just wondering if you could comment on that part of the film, and whether the true message of the film isn’t that people should be wary of celebrities entering politics, but that socially conscience people need to turn themselves into celebrities in order to affect change?
Chris Atkins: I think we just need to treat celebrities as dangerous. Just as 20 cups of coffee in a day is dangerous. Celebrities have a place we need to be extremely wary of allowing them to move spheres. I know that’s stating the obvious, but it’s happening a lot. In Lithuania you had a situation where, in young democracy, which at the same time was discovering new media – it was in a sense natural that entertainers quickly entered politics. Reality television was a massive success there, partly because voting was new to them. Voting for politicians and voting on reality shows seemed similar and in fact became one and the same thing. It became natural for celebrities in reality shows to stand for government. So they formed a party, became part of a government coalition and it’s a disaster. Their popularity rating has gone through the floor. It’s a kind of metaphor for what could, and I think may well, happen in the West. Consider the poll among young people taken recently about who they’d most like to see as Prime Minister: Simon Cowell came top of the list.
The Third Estate: That’s terrifying.
Chris Atkins: So people say, well it’s crazy ― those crazy Lithuanians, but it is happening here. Once you put celebrities into this sphere, damaging things happen. But nobody in the media questions it. The media are trained to be nice to celebrities and not question them. When we got our passes to film on red carpets, we were briefed not to ask celebrities anything challenging. So when they go into politics, with the level of scrutiny politicians receive, there’s a fundamental contradiction.
The Third Estate: So your message to celebrities would be to stay out of politics?
Chris Atkins: No, celebrities are irrelevant to the whole thing. If I was a celebrity being paid five million pounds a movie with people telling me I was brilliant every day, I would think I could change the world. That’s natural, the human mind does that to anyone. It’s called Acquired Narcissism Syndrome. I don’t blame the celebrities from thinking they can stop wars. That’s just natural; they’re cretins. The problem I have is when the media doesn’t challenge that. It doesn’t stand there and go ‘hang on a fricking minute what the hell is Angelina Jolie doing in Iraq?’
The Third Estate: To play devil’s advocate there’s an argument which I think is well expressed in a Kundera novel – there’s a march in Cambodia against land mines. An American actress goes along with what are mainly a group of French academics one of whom challenges her ‘what are you doing here? This isn’t a beauty parade.’ The actress replies that it is her social duty. Without her, the academics aren’t going to attract any attention to the problem and so she has to be seen there.
Chris Atkins: That’s a common argument. The problem again is the media. Why do the media only cover something if there’s some airhead blonde fronting it? Why don’t they cover it anyway? The celebrity is like a band aid, a much deeper problem with our media. For the celebrity to say I alone can change this problem is again part of this Acquired Narcissism Syndrome. This happened to Tony Blair a lot – my being somewhere will change things just by my presence. I’ve worked with actors for a decade. That’s how they feel, as if they’re the centre of the universe. It’s natural for them to get on a plane once a year and go somewhere a bit cold and pretend they’re making a difference. The problem is where the media follow in droves and repeat their banal state-the-bleeding-obvious points without question, but don’t go there when the celebrities aren’t around.
The Third Estate: If God is dead, Communism is the God that’s failed, we don’t believe in progress any more, Capitalism is on its knees and the American Dream has turned nightmare – isn’t celebrity all we have left to believe in? What’s the alternative?
Chris Atkins: God knows. I certainly would concur there’s a deep seated need for it to the extent it’s genetic, that we have behavioural urges to congregate around strong figures. In terms of what we do instead? When you have a world evermore mediatised and celebrity is the best way of delivering it; celebrity is here to stay. I think we need people to be more honest or more responsible. If the media said ― what you’re about to read is harmful and very little of it is true – I would have no problem. But we’re coming to a stage where media corporations are as powerful, if not more powerful, than governments.
The Third Estate: Which is strange when so much of the media is shrinking.
Chris Atkins: Well it is and it isn’t. Traditional structures are falling apart and in a sense all that remains is celebrity driven entertainment news. That’s doing well. Hard news is falling by the wayside and we’re left with a homogenised celebrity entertainment ether, which is everywhere but says nothing.
The Third Estate: Someone at the premiere asked a question about whether you’d prefer a weaker media – and argued, going back somewhat, that Anthony Eden, for example, would simply refuse to answer questions he wasn’t interested in. Surely that’s not preferable?
Chris Atkins: No, I’m not sitting here saying the media’s a terrible thing. Certainly from a political perspective we have this fantastic scrutiny, so that Twitter and blogs are able to protect the Houses of Parliament from a bloody law firm. It was absolutely astonishing. I was in the Guardian when all that kicked off. The whole Little Brother thing, the way people can take photographs of police beating newspaper vendors ― of course the media can protect us and scrutinise those in power more than they ever could. I would be the last person to try and roll any of that back. But it also means that the News of the World, with all the terrible ghastly things it does, hides behind the freedom of speech argument. It’s used as a shield for all kinds of illicit practices.
The Third Estate: I was struck by the Eden comment because, although he may have ignored the press, he ultimately fell on a lie. By comparison Blair lied continuously, and was caught out lying, but he survived. Doesn’t that suggest there’s too much competing media perhaps – the cacophony argument?
Chris Atkins: Well no, Blair just lied better. He used the media better. He changed how Downing Street briefings were done, by using that fantastic tool of celebrity PR – access. If you toed the line, ran the report the way the government wanted you to, you would get photos of Tony and Cherie. But if you didn’t and you ran an article asking ‘Where the fuck are these weapons of mass destruction?’ you’d be shut out of the briefing. No copy and as a journalist you’ll be in shit. That’s why Blair could get away with everything. It was a Max Clifford technique – there’s very little difference between Max Clifford and Alistair Campbell. Both in getting things written they want written, and stopping the publication of things they don’t want to see. It’s a celebrity PR trick.
The Third Estate: I can see some media commentators arguing that perhaps we don’t mind having liars at the top, culture has shifted. Rather than the media leading the public up the garden path, the media is simply reflective of contemporary mores.
Chris Atkins: Personally, I don’t want to think that’s true. Maybe it is true, in which case it’s a sad state of affairs if we’ve become desensitised to the idea of liars in office. I like the idea people trusted Tony Blair and that trust was simply misplaced. But people can get very angry: look at the row over MPs expenses. That was unheard of, certainly in all the time I’ve been watching politics. They were fiddling just a few grand.
The Third Estate: Compared to the bankers.
Chris Atkins: Compared to the bankers billions, yes. But I think it was more about trust and honesty than the money. Yes, it’s very annoying it happened in a recession – but literally more got written about that duck house than about RBS. We as people want to trust our leaders. We get very angry when our trust is abused. Celebrity reporting, PR spin coming from the world of entertainment into politics, brings with it this unbearably toxic effect.
The Third Estate: Where should people go for their news?
Chris Atkins: I get asked this all the time. I don’t have any particular answer. It’s interesting how many news outlets just recycle newswire. I’d say cut out the middle man, go to PA and Reuters. But I really don’t know. Hopefully out of this catastrophe in news people will come who want to invest in investigative journalism. Journalists who take their time to generate copy and charge for it, so that people go to those suppliers in a way that people go to a good brand. A lot of brands are in trouble at the moment. I read the Guardian but they run a lot of PR nonsense as well ―they ran our stories! Not that there wasn’t news value in that but we were essentially trying to sell our movie. Ultimately I don’t have a good answer.
The Third Estate: Why have you chosen to put this documentary into cinema ahead of television?
Chris Atkins: From our point of view, there’s no way this would be made for TV. Look at TV docs ― Dispatches: reporter in a taxi shouting at the camera. Panorama: Jeremy Vine shouting at the camera. Investigative journalism in television is pretty much dead. Certainly making a stand and taking on something as powerful as the tabloid press wouldn’t be thought of. Television makes things like Jeremy Clarkson going on a wine tasting course or Ross Kemp in Afghanistan, except he’s only a hundred miles away from the actual fighting. If you want to do something ballsy and revelatory in Britain it has to be done for the cinema. Then once it’s been out in the cinema, we’ve got our 4* reviews and people have tried to sue and failed, television comes sheepishly crawling in saying this is far more exciting than anything we’ve put on this year. Please can we buy it from you and start it with a big caveat saying ‘this is nothing to do with Channel 4, we’ve just bought, we didn’t make it, this is not our opinion’. That happened with Taking Liberties and will happen with this.
The Third Estate: You’re selling to Channel 4 rather than the BBC?
Chris Atkins: Yes. The BBC feature quite prominently in it. No one else picked up on this, but in fact the guy who commissioned the Live 8 documentaries, we feature as Bob Geldof basically rewriting history, is Richard Klein. He’s head of BBC 4. If we were going to sell to the BBC, he’d be the person buying.
The Third Estate: What would you say to people who want to make this kind of film?
Chris Atkins: Well you can’t ― that’s the problem. You can’t go to the BBC because they were part of it. Richard Curtis is a god at the BBC. Look at Comic Relief. People at 4 buy stuff from Brook Lapping which is Bob Geldof’s company. They’re all mates. It’s part of the problem. When you start to do something that criticises the media it becomes almost impossible. You need them to help. You say ‘there’s this oil company I want to doc on’, they say go ‘ahead here’s some cash’. You say, ‘there’s this media company I want to examine’, they say ‘my wife works there’. You have to lock the doors and do it independently.