Sympathy for the devil

Well, not the devil exactly. But Jade Goody has all too often been held up as reality TV’s most diabolical creation, a celebrity whose fame is built solely on the basis of having appeared on a TV show, Big Brother, whose sole premise is to entertain viewers with the laboratory rat antics of a bunch of wannabes desperate for their 15 minutes of fame, despite having no discernible talent other than searing ambition, and the ability to be simultaneously obnoxious and completely lacking in self-awareness.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not here to vilify Big Brother. As someone who has watched the programme since its beginning in 2000, I’m well aware I’m part of the machine which creates Z-list celebs like Goody. And I know it’s little more than glorified car-crash TV, but it’s still one of my guilty pleasures which fills a gap in a largely football-free summer, so I won’t apologise for that either. (“Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been two months since I last watched Big Brother.”)

Equally, I come neither to praise Goody, nor to bury her. She has long been held up as Queen of the Chavs, the far-from-the-sharpest-tool who made a million off the back of not knowing where “East Angular” is. And that was before the events of ‘Shilpa-gate’ during Celebrity Big Brother in 2007, where she was ritually crucified on the altar of public opinion for her racist comments – “Shilpa Poppadum”, among others – towards Bollywood actress Shilpa Shetty.

While there is no place in society for the kind of abuse Goody dished out, it’s also worth putting into perspective. I’m from an ethnic minority myself, and while I found Goody’s insults offensive to say the least, I’ve been on the receiving end of worse abuse at football matches. And that pales into insignificance compared to the kind of vile homophobic abuse dished out by Tottenham fans to their former captain Sol Campbell two weeks ago. (Abuse which I am sure many Spurs fans themselves are disgusted by, but which equally has been publicly defended by some as “no more than he deserves” and “just part of footballing banter” on radio phone-ins. I’m not joking.)

My point is this: Jade Goody may be exceptionable, but she is certainly not exceptional. We like to think of our society as cosmopolitan and sophisticated – and that our mob reaction in scapegoating the likes of Goody is incontrovertible proof of that – but the fact is that Goody is neither unique nor the worst example of abusive, discriminating behaviour there is. Yes, we are a cosmopolitan society in the UK – something I take great pride in – but we’re by no means a perfect one.

Anyhow, I never thought I’d feel sympathy towards Jade Goody. While she has certainly made the most of her celebrity and limited talent – wouldn’t anyone in her position? – it’s not as if my quality of life has been eroded by her ubiquitous presence in the gossip mags. Earlier this year she went into the Indian Big Brother house – now there’s a show of PR chutzpah if ever there was one – only to leave within days after being told she had been diagnosed with cervical cancer.

And it was in this context that I was horrified to read Caitlin Moran’s weekly Celebrity Watch column in today’s Times. Here’s Moran commenting on OK! magazine’s interview with Goody this week:

With her on/off boyfriend, Jack Tweed, currently in jail, she has had to cope with her illness alone. OK! tackled this aspect of her life with the question: “How’s [Jack] coping – has he been safe in the showers?” Because it’s always nice when a national publication asks if your partner is being raped in prison. Follow-up questions/comments included: “What if one of the kids at school goes up to [your kids] and says ‘Your mum is going to die’?”; “Would you come back as a ghost?”; and, fairly incredibly, “You’ll be like a cockroach, who’ll live for ever.”

Who comes up with this? Why do the bottom-feeders at OK! think there are people out there who want to read this kind of trailer-trash journalism? And, worst of all, why are they right in thinking exactly that?

As I said above, I never thought I’d feel sympathy towards Jade Goody. I do now.

Instead of pillorying Jade Goody and her ilk, maybe we would be better served by taking a long, hard look in the mirror ourselves. I’m not at all sure we would like what we see.