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Too rich a diet of celebrities

27 March 2015

by Sally Hitchiner

I SHOULD start with an apology. This is an article about Jeremy Clarkson. Yes, another one. But stay with me: the irony of this is not lost on me. I, too, have spent much of the past two weeks shouting "Can't the media talk about someone else?", yet here I am, writing a column about him. What I find interesting, however, is not Mr Clarkson and his allegedly disgruntled violence over a steak dinner, but us: our reaction to this incident, and the fact that we find it so endlessly fascinating.

It could be a simple case of journalists enjoying nothing more than writing about journalists; but most people have forgotten that Clarkson is a journalist, or that he produces anything at all. The one-million-plus subscribers to the Bring Back Clarkson online petition didn't sign it because of his abilities, or his morality, nor any in-depth arguments; just a photograph of him being bullish and uncaring - "Jeremy Clarkson": a public property to be maintained.

Clarkson the person has blurred with Clarkson the brand. Love him or hate him, measured in cold, hard cash his value is now extremely high. The argument about whether or not he should be forgiven revolves mostly around the fact that more than a million of us say that we love him for his persona, a persona that is sold to 214 television channels, and makes an estimated £20 million in operating profits for the BBC.

Is it any wonder if he has started to believe that his life is worth more than other members of his species? We have come to recognise that soldiers, returning from war to the mundanity of the everyday can find it difficult to switch off the detachment needed to do their job, but we still expect celebrities to have the strength of character to critique the system that lauds them.

Celebrity meltdowns are familiar. Individuals in the public eye often become so used to being gazed at that they stop being able to look back.

And it's too easy for us to make it entirely the problem of the celebs. Clarkson has 4.38 million Twitter followers hanging on his every utterance, and millions more who tune in to hear his opinions about cars, even if they care little about the subject.

The public depends on this master/slave dialectic almost as much as the celebrity. We are party to the media that sets people up as consumables who are ultimately disposable. We are party to the voracious gorging on the soul that, unchecked, results in individuals being reduced to nothing more than the remains of the feast; bones to be picked over.

As we face Palm Sunday and God's own experience of celebrity commodification, with its highs and lows, Christ comes to us, with beaten body in bread and wine, and offers us the only consumer culture that can truly satisfy.

The Revd Sally Hitchiner is Chaplain to Brunel University, London.

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