Does reaction to Charlotte Church’s ‘prosecco socialism’ show that authenticity is out of reach for celebrity activists?

It’s fair to say that Charlotte Church was unhappy with the result of the UK’s latest general election. After the Conservative party unexpectedly won an overall majority, Church not only reiterated her dislike for the Tories on Twitter, but attended an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. This attracted a lot of attention, and by June 20th Church was not only participating in The People’s Assembly anti-austerity protest in London, but giving a speech to the thousands of protestors in parliament square.

Church was not the only celebrity to address the crowd, but her speech did attract the most attention. This may be partly because Russell Brand did not want to give interviews that day, but may also be because Brand is now an established and expected presence at such events, whilst Church is a fresher face. Her speech attracted much online coverage, and she was interviewed for BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and SKY News.

Church would have known that her role in the protest would attract criticism; before the event had even finished she had discussed accusations of hypocrisy, and the difficulties artists face in talking about politics, with Channel 4 News. Church’s mum even wore a T-Shirt stating ‘prosecco socialist’, referencing her comeback that she was ‘more of a prosecco girl’ to the leader of the Welsh Conservatives who dismissed her as a champagne socialist. Church had previously been criticised for not ‘voluntarily’ paying a higher rate of tax, after she stated that she would be happy to pay 70% tax in order to contribute to properly funded public services and an end to austerity.

Church and her mum at the protest in London

Church and her mum at the June 2o protest in London

Church’s speech, however, brought a new wave of criticism, much of this using misogynistic language, and new accusations of hypocrisy. Looking at celebrity involvement in progressive campaigns, a clear pattern emerges. Evidence of alleged hypocrisy is quickly found and (re)posted by right-wing bloggers or journalists, and this is then used by others to criticise the celebrity’s political statements and suggest that they should not be participating in political movements. Following Church’s statement that she would pay 70% tax to support public services, a Conservative councillor uploaded a video to YouTube of Church appearing on Have I Got News For You 12 years ago (aged just 17), complaining that she pays too much tax. Guido Fawkes then embedded this in a post accusing Church of being on a ‘mission to be reborn as a poundshop Russell Brand’.

Following the protest Fawkes accused Church of further hypocrisy, publishing a quote from the website of the accountancy firm used by her companies which stated that ‘lowering and deferring tax is, of course, a key aim’. This new allegation was used by many of Church’s Twitter critics. This is now a familiar pattern; the speed with which Russell Brand (following a housing protest) was declared a hypocrite for the tax affairs of his landlord, or Martin Freeman a champagne socialist because of his son’s private education (following his Labour party political broadcast) is impressive. But Church was faced with not only trying to refute these accusations of hypocrisy, but also calling out the sexism of many of her critics.

Can a celebrity be an ‘authentic’ activist? 

These accusations of hypocrisy are founded on a perceived inconsistency between the person’s political statements, or the political aims of any movements, groups or parties they are associated with, and other aspects of their life. This fits with recent academic debates over what authenticity is, which conclude that authenticity is a performance. Rather than about ‘being yourself’, to be perceived authentic a person must present themselves consistently across the different areas of their life, and the different platforms they use to communicate.[1]

Clearly, this perceived authenticity is difficult to achieve, but there are three key reasons it may be even more difficult, perhaps even impossible, for a celebrity who becomes involved in left-wing political activism. Cries of ‘hypocrite’ often come from the tension between the celebrity’s elevated wealth and status and their desire to speak on behalf of those who do not have these privileges, but there are other barriers to authenticity. If someone has been famous for a number of years, it is almost inevitable that some aspect of their mediated life can be found and used as evidence of inconsistency, and therefore inauthenticity. Charlotte Church became known as a singer at the age of 11, we should not be surprised that her opinions have changed over the past 18 years.

The celebrity/activist is also likely to have their fingers in several pies, which creates more opportunities for inconsistency. Those who wish to ‘expose’ the celebrity as inauthentic can search for tensions between the celebrity’s commercial activities and their political statements. Even in cases where these allegations of hypocrisy are tenuous, such as Russell Brand being held accountable for the actions of his landlord, the celebrity is then drawn into time-consuming arguments with critics.

Charlotte Church and her mum Maria at an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. From Mirror.co.uk

Charlotte Church and her mum Maria at an anti-austerity protest in Cardiff. From Mirror.co.uk

If consistency is the key to being perceived as authentic, and authenticity is the key to being taken seriously, the celebrity-activist is likely to find that their fame opens doors, but that there is a crowd of critics armed with Google and Twitter waiting on the other side. Church’s case demonstrates that for women, their authenticity as an activist will often be debated in misogynistic terms. Of course a celebrity’s political actions or statements, and their intentions, should not go unscrutinised. However, these petty disputes over minor inconsistencies in a celebrity’s mediated life hold the celebrity to a standard of ‘authenticity’ which is unattainable, and distract from the political issues up for debate in the process.

[1] See the following: Sarah Banet-Weiser (2012). AuthenticTM: The Politics of Ambivalence in a Brand Culture

Alice Marwick (2013). Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age

Alice Marwick and danah boyd (2011). To See and Be Seen: Celebrity Practice on Twitter. Convergence 17 (2).

Sarah Thomas (2014) ‘Celebrity in the “Twitterverse”: history, authenticity and the multiplicity of stardom. Situating the “newness” of Twitter’, Celebrity Studies 5 (3).

 

 

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Campaign 2015: #Milibrand

When an image emerged on Twitter of Ed Miliband leaving Russell Brand’s apartment, speculation abounded that Brand could be about to endorse Labour. Having spent this year writing a case study on Russell Brand’s involvement in housing campaigns, I told everyone who asked that there was no way that Brand would ever endorse the Labour party. Then, this happened.

Having released most of the ‘Milibrand interview’ on April 29th, to mixed reactions, Brand suddenly announced that more ‘unseen footage’ would be uploaded 3 days before polling day. In this Trews, which has been viewed over 800,000 times, Brand shows ‘the part of the interview that I found most encouraging’, where they discuss the ideal of politics as community-led. Brand then concluded, ‘David Cameron might think I’m a joke, but I don’t think there’s anything funny about what the Conservative party have been doing to this country, and we have to stop them. So my view is this: If you’re Scottish, you don’t need an English person telling you what to do, you know what you’re gonna be doing. If you’re in Brighton, I think it would be a travesty if we lost the voice of Caroline Lucas in Westminster. But anywhere else, you’ve gotta vote Labour, you’ve gotta get the Conservative party out of government in this country so that we can begin community-led activism’.

Unsurprisingly, this got people talking. Some conservative-supporting papers speculated that Brand’s support would be damaging for Labour, criticising Miliband for ‘going to’ Brand.  I would argue, however, that Brand was taking the bigger risk in (temporarily) backing Labour. The risk to Brand was, of course, not an electoral one, but the possibility that his supporters might not back his decision. Whilst many articles mocked Brand as a ‘hypocrite’ for making a ‘U-turn’ on his (often oversimplified) anti-voting stance, I saw many more Trews viewers and Brand fans objecting to his ‘you’ve gotta vote Labour’ statement because they had already decided to vote for the Green party.

This is unsurprising; as I discussed in a previous post, Brand agrees with the Greens on almost everything, and has worked with Lucas on drug-reform campaigns. Brand also interviewed Caroline Lucas and Natalie Bennett, describing Lucas as a ‘lovely human being, the very kind of person you want making political decisions’, and encouraging those living in Brighton Pavilion to vote for her. Brand stopped short of endorsing the Green party as a whole, however, because whilst he agrees with many of their policies, ‘unless there’s considerable, massive electoral reform in our country, the Green party cannot impose those politics’.

Not everyone accepted an endorsement for the Labour party from the man who has been calling for revolution. The administrator of one fan group on Facebook, which has over 4000 members, announced that she would close the group (which had become, for many, a place to express support for the Greens), as she felt disappointed and mislead. Whilst members of the group talked her out of this, she was far from alone in her disappointment. Across Twitter, Facebook groups and pages and YouTube comments, there was much debate over whether the endorsement was a realistic assessment of the election, or a hypocritical betrayal of Brand’s ideals.

Having initially been shocked to see Brand back Labour, his motivations became much clearer and, in my opinion more relatable, after he posted a long piece explaining that he and the Trews team had actually decided to back Labour before the ‘Milibrand’ interview. His election day edition of The Trews also addressed the ‘often vicious’ comments he’d received following the endorsement. Brand explained that his opinion that it didn’t matter who won the election was chipped away at by the stories of those close to him, for whom Conservative welfare policies would cause missed opportunities and misery. ‘Ultimately what I feel, is that by not removing the Tories, through an unwillingness to participate in the “masquerade of democracy”, I was implicitly expecting the most vulnerable people in society to pay the price on my behalf while I pondered alternatives in luxury’. Ultimately, Brand concluded that whilst it was a poor choice, it would be easier to push for more meaningful change under a Labour-led government than a Conservative one.

Whilst many continued to criticise Brand, a greater proportion of commenters were now understanding of his opinion, even if they didn’t share it. Brand’s statement that ‘the gap between left and right is too small, but millions of people live or die in that gap’ reminded me of plenty of comments I’d seen from undecided left-wing voters who ultimately, begrudgingly, decided to vote Labour.

The election did not go the way that Brand wanted. This caused him to reflect on the endorsement, but also more broadly on his power compared to that of the Tory press, lamenting that ‘the old media, the establishment, is a powerful thing’. His regret was not so much endorsing Miliband, but that his endorsement seemingly made no difference. It may be true that Brand overestimated his influence or, even more likely, miscalculated his audience; of those who follow him, who are British adults and who were registered, there may have been some potential non-voters or Green voters who could be convinced to grit their teeth and vote Labour, but without the ability to influence anyone thinking of voting Conservative this surely is not enough. But he should not be so quick to wave the white flag in his war with The Sun; as Amy Smith pointed out in our joint blog post, they were all too quick to claim victory in ‘the phony war between traditional and newer media’.

Despite many reporting Brand’s comments as his ‘resignation from politics’, whilst I doubt he’ll throw his weight behind a party again he made it clear that he would continue to back community campaigns, where Brand has already proven he can make a difference. In a way, Miliband and Labour not getting into office may be a dodged bullet for Brand, who will not have to spend the next 5 years responding to every Labour government cut, or the renewal of trident, with ‘but I didn’t fully back Labour’. Still, having spent 18 months defending their favourite radical comedian from criticism of his ‘anti-voting’ statements, some of his fans may not be quick to forget the outcome of #Milibrand.

From www.thenorthernecho.co.uk I am truly sorry.

From http://www.thenorthernecho.co.uk
I am truly sorry.

General Election 2015: High, lows, and moments of confusion

It’s hard to believe that the UK General Election campaign came to an end just seven days ago. Having finally recovered from pulling the all-nighter to end all all-nighters, it’s time to reflect on the campaign. Whilst there are plenty of serious debates to be had, Amy Smith and I felt we would try to make light (and a little sense of) some of the campaign’s more interesting events. Here is a little discussion of the campaign moments that made us smile, or shake our heads in collective confusion.

Milibrand

Ellen: When Miliband was pictured leaving Brand’s flat and the press speculated there could be an endorsement, I laughed and told everyone that would never happen. Then it did. Brand’s ‘anti-voting’ position was never as rigid as the press reported, and he’d always liked Miliband, but I was still blown away. I think this definitely had more potential to damage Brand than Miliband, whatever the press say. Many of Brand’s fans support the Green Party, and he’s much closer to them ideologically. For me, the most interesting thing about the whole episode is the debate over whether Miliband should have ‘gone to’ Brand. Does this demonstrate the trivialisation of elections, or a bold willingness to reach out to Brand’s nine million followers? Cameron called Brand a joke…well, even if it made no difference, at least it showed that Miliband can take a joke!

 Amy: I agree with you that the point of interest here is the debate about whether Miliband was right or wrong to go to Brand. It speaks to a larger tension between older and newer forms of social media and did spark some discussion in the press along these lines. Both sides seemed to accept that this was an attempt by Labour to reach that notoriously homogenous, disengaged group known as ‘the youth’ (note: they are not homogenous and disengaged). The argument seemed to be divided into whether Miliband was doing the right thing because he was, at least, making an attempt to reach the youth through Brand’s social media following, or whether attempting to reach the youth was a pointless exercise. Whatever the reality, The Sun has claimed victory in the phony war between traditional and newer media, clearly ignoring the nuances of intermedia dependency even as it is displayed on the very same webpage (see below).

Screenshot of sunnation.co.uk’s “Brand: People do listen to The Sun”

Screenshot of sunnation.co.uk’s “Brand: People do listen to The Sun”

Ed Miliband: sex symbol or North London geek?

 Amy: The press had something of a crisis over how to represent Ed Miliband. Was he the “North London geek”, as branded by Jeremy Paxman in the ‘Battle for Number 10’, unable to eat a bacon sandwich competently and hence unable to run the country competently? Or was he ladies’ man, with a “Very Tangled Love Life”? The Daily Mail article did it’s very best to perpetuate the latter, but it read like a very boring account of the relationship histories of most people in modern Britain. The alternate headline made up in the PhD office, “Man has relationships with women he meets at university and through mutual friends before marrying his wife”, seemed more accurate if less sensational.

 Ellen: Our headline is definitely better. The ‘North London geek’ thing particularly intrigued me. We definitely saw Miliband play up to the ‘geek’ label more afterwards, talking more about his favourite video games and baseball teams in interviews. Paxman definitely didn’t mean it as a compliment, Charlie Brooker even speculated that unnecessarily adding ‘North London’ was an anti-Semitic dig, but Miliband tried to reclaim the geek label and use it to his advantage. I think that this was probably the right move; better to admit to having obscure interests than to forget which football team you ‘support’.

 Joey Essex

 Ellen:  Joey Essex interviewed Miliband, Clegg and Farage for his ITV2 special ‘Educating Joey Essex: General Election, What Are You Sayin?!’ He didn’t vote in 2010, and was on a mission to learn more about politics so that he could this time. Whilst the programme was (of course) pretty silly, the ability of some of Essex’s interviewees to relate to him demonstrated positive qualities in them. Anyone who knows Joey’s history must’ve felt a little ‘emosh’ seeing Nick Clegg talking to him about improving mental health care.

Meeting ‘ordinary celebrities’ is becoming yet another proxy for meeting ‘ordinary voters’, but I still wish Cameron had become involved. Joey did vote, after going to the wrong polling station, but we don’t know who for. I’d love to know if he got confused that Miliband, Farage and ‘Nick Legg’ weren’t actually on the ballot papers. Joey Essex general election pundit, Amy, what are YOU sayin’?

Amy: Well, where to begin? Essex’s programme naturally drew a lot of media attention and was much discussed on social media. It fits the trope of engaging ‘the youth’, although perhaps targeting a different demographic to that of the Brand interviews (ergo, they are not one homogenous group). It therefore helped to perpetuate ‘the engagement of young people in politics’ as a narrative throughout the campaign. Perhaps because of this, most parties wanted to become involved with his investigations, and took his slip-ups in good humour (the Lib Dems changing their website to feature the ‘Liberal Democats’ was a personal highlight). And who knows, maybe Essex’s programme did help some to understand the election and decide who to vote for. I think there’s probably a thesis in that, Ellen…

 #Milifandom (and #Cameronettes?)

Ellen: Whilst I feel like some of the photoshopped images of Ed Miliband’s face on semi-naked models will haunt my dreams forever, #Milifandom raised some interesting questions about participation. I was happy to see its founder, Abby, hitting back at journalists who saw her enthusiasm as childish, arguing that she had started #Milifandom as a response to media attacks on Miliband. I hope that she and other Milifans haven’t become totally despondent about politics before they can even vote.

Amy: I was overjoyed at the emergence of #Milifandom. After all the talk of youth participation here were some youth’s actually participating. Using a social media platform to express not only love but reasoned arguments for supporting Ed Miliband, it turned out that they were both knowledgeable and passionate. Obviously, there were some sceptics, with fandoms usually associated with 1D-obsessed teenage girls. Nevertheless, in #Milifandom we saw many of the traits that the old guard lament as lost in young people, and the wonderful thing was that it was organically created in a new media logic understood by its core audience and mistrusted by older generations. A timeless recipe really.

I was confused at the emergence of #Cameronettes. The Telegraph tried to clear it up, but in fact made me more concerned. Was it created by CCHQ, a teenage girl, a twenty-something male student, or a twenty-something male student masquerading as teenage girl? I stopped collecting data on this quite quickly basically because I couldn’t cope.

The ‘biased’ BBC

Amy: This also had me confused consistently. In my collection of data from Twitter and Facebook, I alternately learned that the BBC was left-wing/right-wing (delete as appropriate) and it was made clear that the Beeb was not giving enough airtime to UKIP, the Conservatives, UKIP, Labour, or UKIP. Even their debate audiences, as Nigel Farage brought to our attention, seemed to be unfairly weighted. Yet, the BBC is heavily regulated to ensure it gives even coverage to all parties, based on their size, and – as I found out by talking to their journalists – they have to produce graphs at the end of every week to prove it. So they are at least technically unbiased, then. Problem-solved. I must also give special mention to BBC Breakfast’s election coverage involving the ‘Travelling Sofa’ and the ‘Steph-o-meter’™, which kept me amused during many an early start. Kudos, Breakfast team.

Ellen: The BBC definitely cannot win. For the Conservatives, accusing the BBC of bias is a win-win, undermining negative coverage of them but possibly more importantly undermining the authority of the BBC itself. This is crucial when you plan to appoint a culture secretary who thinks that the license fee is ‘unsustainable’. As for UKIP, for all the involvement of comedians in this campaign its funniest moment was definitely still Farage attacking the audience at the Challengers’ Debate. How not to win people over 101.

The “selfie election”. Or was it the “social media election”?

Amy: Thesis-wise I was absolutely thrilled the media began to give various monikers to the election – it fits right in with my introductory chapter. However, both of the prominent ones given above are questionable. No-one can argue that selfies were not in abundance, but calling this campaign the “selfie election” refers to a derivative of a specific use of media, rather than having campaign activities aligned to a media platform, such as in “the television election” or “the internet election”. The “social media election” does do this, and certainly social media use by politicians, journalists and voters alike was central throughout the campaign. Yet in the aftermath of the vote, left-wing commentators considered that their existence within the social media bubble had led them to believe the outcome of election would be more favourable for them. It clearly wasn’t, so perhaps “the social media” election is somewhat of a misnomer, in terms of the medium’s impact on outcome.

Ellen: I agree. Social media use during campaigns is now obviously necessary, how out of touch would you look if you didn’t use it, but I don’t think it will ever be sufficient to lead a party to victory. Ed Miliband started using Instagram last September, much to the amusement of the press, and it became its own little fascinating bubble of Milifandom before #Milifandom was even a thing. Clearly though, David Cameron’s lack of Instagram, or a selfie with Joey Essex or a bride-to-be and her hens, wasn’t a barrier to electoral success.

And finally, Al Murray…

Al Murray

Al Murray reacts to Nigel Farage’s loss at the South Thanet count.