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Nick Pickles: The vicious building-up and tearing-down of Tulisa

Nick Pickles is Director of the civil liberties campaign group Big Brother Watch, and a music photographer whose work can be viewed here. Follow Nick on Twitter.

Imagine the headline: Dave, 30, from Leeds caught in £800 drugs deal. Does it make the front page of the Yorkshire Evening Post? Almost definitely not. In the man bites dog versus dog bites man story test, this is most definitely a dog bites man story. Drug deals of this kind take place every day, in every city across the country. That is not to make it any more acceptable, but to ask for a degree of perspective.

Yet add a fairly low-grade celebrity to the mix and you have national front-page news, paparazzi scrums and rolling news headlines.

And so I find myself in the bizarre position of sympathising with someone from N-Dubz – and not just for the fact they were in N-Dubz. In the interests of full disclosure, I’ve had the misfortune of seeing said “group” live more times than I wish on any reader of this site. I’ve even seen the solo projects, and I assure you it doesn’t get any better. A musical tour de force they are not.

Tulisa’s case is clearly now in the hands of the police and that means I can’t get too close to the specifics, but I think the case illustrates a wider point about celebrity culture and what is deemed to be in the public interest.

Firstly, let me make clear that as much as I detest the chilling effect the Leveson enquiry has had on investigative journalism, this case is not a heroic act of a free press. SOCA estimate the amount of cocaine shipped into the UK is between 25 and 30 tonnes annually. This case allegedly involved a quarter of an ounce. It’s catching a young celebrity doing something stupid, but it’s hardly bringing down a Mr Big. 

From the media coverage to the way the police handled the case, I have found myself wondering just how off-kilter things have become. Indeed, it is remarkable that journalists suspected of buying a press officer a latte get a 6am knock and cuffs, but a low-grade celeb gets to be arrested by appointment.

Over the past decade I have watched as being famous has become an end in itself, doing more damage to the music and film industries than piracy will ever do. Fame is apparently now success, flash photography counts as creating something and then you launch a perfume named after you.

Equally, I have had a front row seat for the way that access to artists has become a commodity in itself, with the “first three songs, no flash rule” becoming as commonplace in small venues as it is at stadium gigs. Exclusives and “off guard” photographs are an industry in themselves, fuelled by a deference to celebrity culture that has spiralled out of control and yet is tolerated to sell papers.

My only question is this – at what point does the public interest become a measured by what the public are interested in?

The answer is most certainly not greater state intrusion in the freedom of the press. Undercover and investigative journalism is a key part of holding those in power to account and exposing those abusing their status. However, is it not right to ask at what point someone simply by virtue of their celebrity becomes fair game for a sting solely intended to sell newspapers that is lacking any public interest whatsoever?

This vicious cycle of building people up, only to tear them back down again is nothing new, but the warnings of what can happen when it gets out of hand are all too clear from recent history.

If we expect our celebrities, and indeed public figures, to live a life of purity aren’t we just asking to be deceived? In turn, elevating figures to a “profile” that demands they are somehow less human and, in the case of politics, most certainly duller.

There are those who saw the Tulisa story as a triumph of journalism, a return to the pre-Leveson boldness of undercover reporting. To those people, I simply say this – what has the story changed? Are the streets of London any less awash with drugs? Is the debate around drug policy better informed?

Of course not. And if there is a greater indictment of how celebrity and reality have become divorced, that is it.


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