In this issue
Dining on fame
Feasting on celebrity fare
|Kathy O'Meara on the fascination with reality TV and the media's appetite for salacious gossip|
Another taboo is broken, its corpse broken and unmourned. As it lies in smithereens, many onlookers suck their teeth, shake their collective heads and pronounce the death of civilised society. The interesting thing is that there are many, far too many, onlookers for this phenomenon to be dismissed as a drop in the ocean. For this is the runaway success Come Dine with Me on Channel 4 and a man's home is no longer his castle.
Come Dine with Me has made it acceptable for us to go into a stranger's home, catalogue with knowing authority its many defects, lampoon the host's social and culinary ineptitude and decry their choice of soft furnishings. And boy, don't we lap it up.
This is a reality TV sensation, using the simple premise of four or five relatively sane strangers (with the occasional dysfunctional sleb thrown in) competing to throw the best dinner party for the paltry (considering what they go through) prize of £1,000.
The factual entertainment format provides three of the top ten most-watched multichannel shows, regularly hauling in audiences of over 700,000 - the argumentative shows, where contestants throw a wobbly or pick on one of the other poor saps.
Recently the spectacle of a clearly deranged Michael Barrymore, erratically mincing his way through one such programme was walking, talking car crash TV - oddly, fascinatingly, compulsive viewing - as he smashed plates, stole fur coats, slagged off the other competitors and, to top it all, announced that he was ‘going back into the closet' having found a blonde of the female persuasion who could tolerate him.
The Irish appetite for such shock fare is also shaping up nicely. Every dog on the street has an opinion on Gerry Ryan's untimely demise, a story kept going by a myriad ‘angles' of discussion, including the Sindo's ‘A troubled Ryan owed the taxman €300,000'. Ronan Keating's marital miseries followed swiftly thereafter, adding to a Boyzone ‘curse' of the media's making. Then we salivated over Gráinne Seoige's "marital mayhem", even though, disappointingly, the couple seems to have separated perfectly amicably, with nary a whisper of a blonde bombshell lurking in the bicycle sheds.
Is the media responsible for this newly hatched preoccupation with the mad instead of the great and the good? Instead of dumbing down, it seems the press is hyping up the thrill factor. Journalism today is essentially disposable, with a proliferation of outlets ready to break a story faster than traditional media can print or broadcast it, adding to pressure to ramp up the splash of a story within the ever-decreasing window of opportunity.
In its worst incarnation shock journalism is not only crude and futile but can also pose an active threat, whether to the welfare of its subjects or in its intentional misleading of the public as a whole. Should publishers take fuller cognisance of social responsibility before engaging in such reporting? But we are all in collusion as avid consumers of same media.
Boyzone singer Ronan Keating's affair with dancer Francine Cornell was fodder for the tabloids as news of his split from his wife, former model Yvonne Connolly, made the headlines - evidence that Ireland is sitting comfortable on the gossip bandwagon.
Or perhaps we have been so shocked by church sex scandals that it takes even more revelatory probing to shock us out of our torpor and ennui? Perhaps we are so socially neurotic that we crave validation in the easily digestible shape of others' shortcomings?
An interesting sideswipe at this preoccupation showed up in the UK recently when David Laws, the newly minted chief secretary to the Treasury (and an alumni of my own King's College to boot), succeeded in deflecting the scandal surrounding his forced resignation in the wake of alleged misappropriation of expenses.
Laws said that he hadn't wished for his sexuality to be an issue. But suddenly it was the issue and the real problem became secondary. Was this a cynical manouevre? After all, from Jeremy Thorpe to Michael Portillo, friends of Dorothy positively proliferate in UK politics. We are led like beasts to water, and they can make us drink.
But what is the draw? What is it in our psyche that finds shock, rudeness, embarrassment so compelling? Polite conversation has given way to a vulgar, prurient probing into the fetid, malodorous regions of strangers' personal lives, bolstering our own sense of social superiority and general winsomeness. Yet, as comedian David Mitchell pointed out, how long will our sense of exhilaration last feasting on the foibles of others?
Do we have a collective responsibility to tame the boorish beast within us and shout ‘Enough pray! For the sake of decorum we shall forsake - nay, forswear - this salacious lunacy and once again champion the rights of the quiet and generally good. So yes, the coq au vin was perfectly seasoned, your lighting creates a lovely ambience and I just love what you've done with those swag curtains. Pretty boring media, granted.
But a far nicer society.