The BBC’s Celebrity: A 21st-Century Story is really the continuing tale of tabloid exploitation

... and the talking heads teach you about nothing but their egos.

“There has been a recklessness in prioritising sensational stories, almost irrespective of the harm the stories may cause and the rights of those who would be affected.”

Those words were written by Lord Leveson at the conclusion of his inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the British press in November 2012. 8 years later and nothing much has really changed; the British media is still about as responsible as Boris Johnson assuring someone else’s wife that he will definitely pull out.

The role of British newspapers in fame and infamy, and the widespread practice of phone hacking (“the dark arts”) which triggered the Leveson Inquiry, is not part of the discussion in the first episode of the BBC documentary Celebrity: A 21st Century Story.

Episode One features a parade of awful humans — including Kevin Blatt (the adult industry fixer who helped put the Paris Hilton sex tape out into the world), David Yelland (the former Sun editor turned PR smoothie), and Eva Simpson (one of the original 3 AM girls) — whose quotes support the narrator’s conclusion that celebrities and those who courted celebrity essentially brought it all on themselves.

Discussing the case of Rebecca Loos, the PA who became a reality TV star and glamour model after claims about her having an affair with David Beckham hit the press, Lucie Cave — the former Heat magazine editor — was commendably but horrifyingly honest:

“Even though everyone was obsessed with the scandal, it didn’t mean she’d earned her right to be a celebrity because she’d almost broken up our biggest, kind of, royalty. She was never going to be someone we embraced with open arms.”

The opening of the episode made it very clear how important Posh and Becks — Victoria and David Beckham — had been for the tabloid press and the whole celebrity magazine economy. Their 1999 wedding — the celeb equivalent of royal nuptials — was snapped up by former porn baron and OK! owner Richard Desmond for £1 million, and by the time of the Loos scandal in 2004, they were still an engine for stories.

Former Daily Star editor Dawn Neesom, who ran the paper from December 2003 to February 2018, was even more brutal in her assessment of Rebecca Loos than Cave:

“There are rules and Rebecca Loos broke one of those rules by telling on the couple who everyone was in love with. She was going to get burnt by that and I think, be careful what you wish for because, in Rebecca’s case, it almost destroyed her.”

The intention was to highlight how Loos fucked up but really Neesom and Cave were revealing the brutal calculus behind the fame machine. Loos was encouraged into making deal after deal, led through the maze by Max Clifford — then an almost all-powerful celebrity agent, who was later convicted of multiple indecent assaults — and then dropped into the shit when the papers grew tired of her.

The narrative of Loos’ ‘failure to understand the rules’ was contrasted with Katie Price assuring the interviewer that she’s shrewd and talking heads describing how she worked the system. It’s a false dichotomy. As Jordan then ‘Katie Price’, Price has survived the system but it has been brutal to her as an individual — a string of failed relationships combined with an ever more exposing spiral.

One of the biggest problems with the early episodes of Celebrity — I’ve watched the first two — is that they treat celebrity and who becomes a celebrity as something that washes over the media rather than a process that tabloids actively engage in. Look at how Cave and Neesom discussed Loos ‘breaking the rules’; once she had the tabloids made sure she was done.

The rise of the WAGs is picked over in the first part of Episode 2 of Celebrity. Former 3 AM girl turned columnist and PR, Eva Simpson, declared “the 2006 World Cup was dominated by the WAGs.”

But who defined what a WAG was? The tabloids. Who paid thousands of pounds for paparazzi pictures of them — including of their bar receipts? The tabloids. The WAGs learned to play into that game and make money for themselves, collaborating with the publications and the paps, but the tabloids started that game and defined the rules.

The scenes of a paparazzi running through how much he was paid for various sets of photos (“Twenty five grand for pictures of Ferne Brittain on a beach!” “Ten grand for Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson doing their shopping!”) weren’t shocking, but they were depressing. They showed a venal and gutless individual absolutely delighted with the cash he’d made from hounding people in a quest to get pictures of nothing for stories that meant nothing.

The narration assured us that there was “this public desire for candid celebrity content” and allowed Perez Hilton to frame his obnoxious gossip site as “[viewing] stars as normal people… a delicious daily soap opera.” Jamie East, founder of now-defunct celebrity gossip site Holy Moly — which he parlayed into a much more respectable career in TV and entertainment — was able to compare his own brutal efforts favourably with Hilton’s even more prickish endeavours.

East admits, “What we started was a freefall and a race to the bottom.” The documentary and it’s contributors keep suggesting that it’s the public, not the press that was to blame for that and I don’t buy it.

Allowing people like Cave, Simpson, and East to stroke their chins and analyse the way they went after fellow humans is a cop-out. Despite the presence of Charlotte Church and Kerry Katona in Episode 2, making it clear how this behaviour affected them personally, Celebrity still feels like it’s going easy on the tabloids.

The newspapers, with phone hacking and ‘blagging’ of medical and tax records, acted like mafia organisations. Their big bosses — Rupert Murdoch and Lord Rothermere among them — suffered no consequences for that behaviour. Alright, alright, Murdoch got pied once and had to pretend to be shamed, but after closing the News of the World, he rapidly reopened it under the Sun on Sunday masthead.

The true story of tabloid crimes and the way celebrity works in the UK, US, and beyond would never be broadcast by the BBC in primetime. It would also never get the cooperation of the journalists, editors and ‘personalities’ who pushed us to this point because they’d have to reckon with the real horror of their behaviour. Celebrity allows monsters to make excuses for themselves, even though no such excuses exist.