January 25th 2003

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Defence: Time for a reality check

EDITORIAL: The flight from fatherhood

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Iraq another divisive issue for the ALP

IRAQ: The case against Saddam Hussein

STRAWS IN THE WIND: The hard questions

COMMENT: Abortion-cancer row continues

LETTERS: Mutual concerns

LETTERS: Dealing with Asia

LETTERS: Protecting the Australian way of life

LETTERS: Free trade

LETTERS: 'Dumbing down'

COMMENT: Sean Penn, Blue Heelers: the politics of celebrity

PROFILE: Why Belloc still matters

BOOKS: The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, by Keith Windschuttle

BOOKS: Culture of Life: Culture of Death, edited by Luke Gormally

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Sean Penn, Blue Heelers: the politics of celebrity

by Michael Scammell

News Weekly, January 25, 2003
Hollywood actor Sean Penn's recent 'fact finding' visit to Baghdad confirms that the 'celebritisation of politics' - the need for important political issues to be seen through the prism of celebrity - is alive and well.

Penn, who is no stranger to the notion of 'good' or 'bad' spin when it comes to publicity, should hardly be surprised that Baghdad's take on his visit was to claim Penn believed that Iraq was completely clear of weapons of mass destruction.

While Penn denies this, claiming his words were 'twisted' by the Iraqi propaganda machine, this was always going to be the danger when a foreign affairs novice such as Penn tries to become a player on the world stage.


What is it about the political stage that attracts the celebrity class? Melbourne's Herald-Sun newspaper recently carried an open letter to the Prime Minister from the self-proclaimed Community Leaders Against An Unjust War, calling for peace in Iraq.

In amongst the assorted professors and doctors who are signatories to the letter and would seem to have at least some expertise on the issue were the additional names John Wood and Alison Whyte, rather incongruously, given the context, listed as 'actors'.

The bulk of the media coverage for the open letter focused on the soapie stars rather than the other more substantive signatories. Thus it would seem that the fact there are people opposed to a war in Iraq is not significant, but the fact that well-known television personalities are opposed is.

This increasing 'celebritisation' of politics seems to be driven by a celebrity class who think there is some fashionable cache in being perceived as more intelligent and important than they actually are, and a dumbed-down public which has been so trained in the practices of public relations that they want their politics simple, and need to be entertained before they can fully comprehend an issue.

While there is nothing new in actors attaching themselves to political causes (remember Hanoi Jane Fonda) the increasing dependence on a public relations based template to manage modern political debate has made the crossover from celebrity to political activist even easier.

Political parties and interest groups, knowing how the system works, are often eager to sign up celebrities to their cause knowing they are more likely to attract media coverage - the oxygen of modern political discourse - as a result.

The endgame of this process seems to be that political parties now want to sign up celebrities - regardless of actual ability - as politicians. For example, Olympic champion Cathy Freeman has stated her interest in a future career in parliament, and at the recent Victorian state election ex-AFL coach Damian Drum and Olympic ski champion Kirsty Marshall were both elected to Parliament.

Political parties are betting that the goodwill attached to Marshall and Drum will allow the public to forgive their political inexperience (Marshall has already admitted to a general ignorance of political issues).

While this may well be the case, it also makes one wonder at the actual talents and skills political parties are these days trying to attract to parliament, and whether a favourable public profile is being treated as a more significant quality that intelligence and sheer hard work.

This 'celebritisation' is not only turning perfectly decent sporting heroes into polticians it also seems to be turning politicians (with help from the media) into celebrities.

Celebrity class

Witness how former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam is given almost rock star status by Australia's true believers in the media. Or former US presidents like Bill Clinton whose recent visits to Australia have been managed by public relations spruikers such as Mark Markson, charging massive movie-star type appearance fees when meeting with Australia's own celebrity-class of soapie stars and lifestyle hosts.

This trend isn't just limited to former politicians with the Sydney Morning Herald late last year launching a Carmen Lawrence Web Diary site on their home page, in the wake of her resignation from the Opposition's frontbench. Whatever happened to the media's innate scepticism towards politicians?

The question isn't whether this use of celebrity to trivialise political debate in Australia will go away - it won't. Rather, how dumb can political discourse in this country get?

  • Michael Scammell is a freelance writer
    Email: michaelscammell@hotmail.com

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