Nobody likes to have nasty things written about them. But recently – for the first time in three decades as a journalist – I’ve had the bizarre experience of TV stars seemingly keen to stop nice stuff – or, indeed, anything at all about them – appearing in print.
Asked by Radio Times to write about the final episode of Peter Kay’s Car Share and by Television magazine to profile Mackenzie Crook, after the awards season success of Detectorists, I was pleased to do so, as an admirer of both men’s work. I knew, though, that they are protective of their privacy, usually refusing requests for media interviews. So my pieces had to build a picture of the performers by talking to those who had worked with them.
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What happened next shocked me. Almost everyone I approached either failed to respond or declined to speak to me as the pieces had not been “authorised” by Kay or Crook. Even people I know well professionally would, with agonised politeness, explain that they couldn’t help me on this occasion without the “permission” of the subject. A close associate of each star even asked me whether it was necessary for these pieces to appear at all, as the performers preferred to “let the work speak for itself”. (It’s impossible to know whether the subjects knew of the news blackout being requested, or if those close to them were being over-protective off their own dead-bats.)
I accept the right of public figures to protect their private lives, except where criminality or professional hypocrisy is involved. And, unlike some in the industry, Kay and Crook have never used their families for publicity when it suited them. But the focus of these pieces was entirely professional, and they were planned as back-pat rather than hatchet jobs. The famous entertainers seemed to be seeking not privacy, but invisibility.
Readers may be tempted to see this as a minor irritation for showbiz writers, but the potential consequences are widespread and chilling. If a TV star feels able to ask not to be favourably profiled, then how far a step is it to demanding not to be reviewed? And, if a right to vet coverage were generally accepted, the logical consequence is that we would need permission to write anything at all about Jacob Rees-Mogg or Donald Trump.
The publicity-shy might also reflect that they already live in unusually lucky times. As recently as six years ago, an entertainer who cancelled a 15-month sold-out tour, as Kay did last December, would have had reporters ringing their doorbell and been followed for days at the supermarket or school gates. Acres of media speculation would have included lurid details, or speculation attributed to those most elusive and unaccountable characters, anonymous “insiders” or “friends.”
That none of this happened to Kay is largely due to a new definition of privacy, following the November 2012 Leveson Report into British media conduct (after the phone hacking-related closure of the News of the World) and recent data protection and privacy legislation. (It’s the basis under which Sir Cliff Richard recently took legal action against the BBC, and a well-known person identified by the random letters “PJS” won a High Court injunction, on appeal, in May 2016, preventing publication of an extra-marital affair.)
So it has never been easier for famous people to protect their private lives. But these tools must not knit a total invisibility cloak for those in the public eye. Stars can refuse to talk, but not to be talked about.