05th Jun 2013

Dangers of Internet Fame

Here’s a news item, to which I contribute, about the dangers young people face when leaving digital footprints for all to trace. It was broadcast on ITV’s Tyne Tees News on Monday 3rd June and will be re-broadcast on ITV Yorkshire’s Calendar News on Thursday 6th at 6pm. To find out more about Jade Weatherhill’s admirable project, visit her page on the Fixers website.

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02nd May 2013

Paltrow: Another Divisive Celebrity


Although I’ve no personal views on the matter, it seems Gwyneth Paltrow can count herself among a select posse of celebrities who divide public opinion. Like Margaret Thatcher, Madonna, Elton John and a few more besides, Paltrow followers fall into two distinct factions: lovers and haters.

Paltrow’s divisive media persona is the subject of a recent article, to which I contributed, in The Daily Telegraph: Is Gwyneth Paltrow the Marmite of Hollywood? In the article I argue that the main stimulus behind this love/hate relationship is the emulative dimension to celebrity – especially with regard to women celebrities. The reason why some people hate Paltrow is the same reason why others adore her: because, at fortysomething with a successful acting career, happy family, money to throw around and looks that would do justice to a woman twenty years her younger, she’s the archetypal Golden Girl living the Hollywood/American Dream. So you either respect, admire and look up to her; or you compare her to yourself (assuming you are vaguely ordinary) and feel personal dissatisfaction coupled with envy bordering on jealousy.

It’s a no-brainer that some people will turn against this Golden Girl persona. Some of Paltrow’s earliest acting roles, in films like Seven and Shakespeare in Love, consolidated that enduring image of the goody-goody paragon of virtue (beauty is truth, truth beauty and all that Keatsian rhetoric).

And the real Paltrow, moreover, can afford all the luxuries of expensive cosmetics and carefully tailored diets and personal training programmes that most ordinary mortals cannot, which is why envy/jealousy quickly turns into feelings of low self-esteem. What the majority of Paltrow haters neglect to understand, however, is that the airbrushed version of Paltrow they encounter most of the time bears no resemblance to the real human being. Celebrity culture is all about constructing an illusory reality and profiting from people’s obsession with a fantasy ideal; one that doesn’t actually exist behind closed doors.

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11th Apr 2013

Thatcher’s Media Persona


Yesterday I was interviewed on BBC Radio Leeds about the death of Margaret Thatcher. The word I used to define her was ‘divisive’. More than any other politician in the contemporary era, she divided public opinion. You either liked her or most certainly did not. In this part of the country, for instance, she decimated coal-mining communities to the south of Leeds and into South Yorkshire; and yet the nouveau rich who benefited from privatisation and the freeing up of stocks and shares thought Mrs Thatcher was the best thing since sliced bread.

Her media persona was equally divisive, but in a different way. Her early years as leader of the Conservative Party and then Prime Minister were quite different from the presidential style of politics she performed later. At first she appeared almost timid and felt insecure enough to hire a voice coach to deepen the pitch of her delivery.

The Falklands Conflict was the game-changer. In fact, Thatcher would have almost certainly lost the 1983 General Election had it not been for the patriotic fervour that she whipped up during Britain’s defeat of Argentina. Thanks to the Falklands, she won a second term in office and bought the time to hone that Iron Lady public image that came to define her later years. Tony Blair, Alistair Campbell and New Labour became fine architects of political marketing and spin, of that there is no doubt: but Thatcher was the pioneering media-savvy PM.

The final question I was asked: why do you think so many young people are taking to the streets to celebrate the death of a former Prime Minister of whom they have no memory? I may claim to be an expert on some aspects of British (youth) culture, but even I had to plead ignorance on this issue. Social media technologies like Facebook allow for fast and efficient organisation of events in our interconnected world, unquestionably, but the personal motivations that drive individuals to participate in forms of protest that they know little or nothing about are truly baffling.

This blog also appears at the Leeds Met Media Centre: http://mediacentre.leedsmet.ac.uk/media-and-popular-culture-expert-dr-dan-laughey-reflects-on-the-death-of-margaret-thatcher/

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28th Feb 2013

We’re Jamming: The Analogue Firewall


Prefiguring state censorship of the internet and satelitte television is a far longer history of state interference in international radio transmissions – also known as jamming. A history, according to a recent report on BBC World Service jamming in China, that is still very much alive.

Jamming was particularly rife during the Cold War era, with the former Soviet Union the main offender. Despite the huge expense – estimates suggest that blocking radio signals costs between three and seven times more than broadcasting from the same frequencies – it was deemed essential for the Communist Bloc to prevent Western progaganda, delivered both in English and Central/Eastern European languages, from poisoning the hearts and minds of comrades everywhere.

The two main players in world radio at this time were the BBC World Service and the Voice of America. The Soviet Union were actually less hostile to the former, but the latter was constantly jammed and deliberately countered by internal state radio propaganda.

Studies into the effectiveness of jamming are inconclusive, but most researchers agree that jamming was less successful when faced with saturation broadcasting – a strategy used by VoA whereby the broadcaster simultaneously transmitted on a range of different frequencies across the available spectrum. The testimonies of Soviet civilians following the end of the Cold War also reveal how many of them succeeded in receiving external broadcasts simply by relocating out of urban areas and into the countryside. Such evidence points to the limited and often localised character of analgoue blocking.

I am one of a no doubt small minority of people in Western countries who actually owns a radio capable of receiving shortwave signals. And since the lifting of the Iron Curtain and the rapid development of digital communications technologies, there appears to be little need for these antiquated devices with their manual tuners and complicated bandings. Yet the need continues, as the present case proves.

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12th Dec 2012

On Media Hoaxes

Those two Australian radio DJs, impersonating the Queen and Prince of Wales in their prank call to the hospital where pregnant Kate, Duchess of Cambridge, was being treated for morning sickness, have created a lot of fuss in the last few days.

Prime Minister Cameron has had his say too, no doubt overjoyed with another tale of media malice – especially one in which he can’t be implicated. What with all these allegations about Jimmy Saville, and then DLT, and then ex-Radio Norfolk’s Michael Souter, and then Stuart Hall, it feels awfully like letting-politicians-off-the-hook season.

The death of the nurse who fell victim to the prank call was sad, and made for an obviously newsworthy story, but directing vitriol towards the radio pranksters is unfair and unhelpful. The fact is that media pranks, hoaxes and practical jokes of all kinds have been enacted for many years now, both for entertainment and journalistic purposes, and this latest case borders on the trivial compared to past instances. Indeed, the initial story would have faded quickly from the media/public conscious had the subsequent suicide not taken place.

If legal action is to be taken against Sydney broadcaster 2Day FM and its two DJs, then, those filing the lawsuit would do well to find a precedent they could draw on. They would also be wise not to consider some of the more extraordinary and wider-scale hoaxes that did not – to my knowledge – lead to legal claims.

Most dramatic of all was the famous Orson Welles War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938. Hadley Cantril’s seminal study of the public and press reaction to Welles’s broadcast, as discussed in my Key Themes book, revealed that a small – but still significant – proportion of the American public actually believed that they were listening to a real news bulletin, not a radio play, and that New York and other US cities were being invaded by Martians. Some listeners even packed up their bags and left their homes unlocked in the rush to escape! (Though where they were escaping to remains something of a mystery.) Imagine if a similar hoax bulletin was broadcast on the radio or television today? There would be litigation left, right and centre!

Other well-known hoaxes that grabbed the media/public attention include the Hitler Diaries of 1983, widely reported as authentic but which turned out to be phony; the fake photos of British soldiers supposedly torturing an Iraqi in 2004, published in the Mirror and costing Piers Morgan his job; the Balloon Boy case, in which half the Coloradoan emergency services attempted to rescue an airborne baby boy that his parents said had accidently become attached to a large balloon (the boy was later found hidden in the attic of the family home); and perhaps most bizarrely, the BBC’s Ghostwatch mockumentary of 1992, in which presenter Sarah Greene’s life appeared to be threatened by a poltergeist who dragged her under the stairs of an ostensibly haunted house! (I remember watching the show as it went out live, and being just a little bit concerned, but only a little…  I still don’t believe in ghosts… I think.)

Many more hoaxes – the Sachsgate scandal, the Great Moon hoax of 1835 and so on – could be mentioned here, but the point is, these stories are mostly harmless, often quite amusing, and historically very interesting. There’s nothing like a good prank to reveal the true character of humanity. It would be a shame if laws and ethics tsars – and a very sad case today - spoilt these essentially fun, and revelationary, outcomes.

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