It glitzing it up the only way to highlight violence?


When I saw the first bit of coverage last week of the star-studded End Sexual Violence in Conflict conference last week in London, I groaned inwardly. Here we go. More UN ‘ambassadors’ who cost money and look pityingly at landmine victims while the organisation and its member countries avoid doing anything that might prevent them becoming victims in the first place.
But during the week of the conference, as I saw pictures of Angelina Jolie with William Hague, read the word rape in numerous headlines – away from the courts pages – and watched a rolling banner on Sky News highlight rape as a weapon of war, I reconsidered.
Jolie has always been an intriguing character, the type it’s interesting to watch from afar but you probably wouldn’t want to have a pint with, because her intensity might weird you out. And she’s only continuing the tradition of liberal politics in Hollywood has always been a bastion of liberal politics – Senator Joe McCarthy was right to target its ‘commies’ in the 1960s.
She was in London to announce a new international protocol on rape in war, and to co-chair the conference with William Hague.
I’ve always been sceptical about the bleeding heart advocacy of the likes of Bono, Jolie and Madonna. It takes political will, funding, and public will to effect change in politics and international relations.
But the massive coverage given to the conference fronted by Jolie begs the question; if it’s the only way to get us talking about politically unpopular topics like rape, war, and international aid, should the interest of celebrities be encouraged?
It’s very popular to blame the media for ‘dumbing down’ and to bemoan the increasing ‘celebritisation’ of news. But, over the past few years, it has gotten a lot easier for us to know what you, the public want, and it’s not what you’d like to think it is.
A recent survey by Reuters, the international news agency, is useful. In a survey, the majority of us say we want to see and hear international news, politics and economics. But in the same week, the catastrophic news that Iraq is being torn asunder came lower in most news websites’ hit counters than stories about YouTube games.
The old BBC line, coined by Baron Reith, that the media should educate, inform and entertain, has been turned on its head by the ease of access to statistics on what exactly works for the consumer. And, unfortunately, it’s usually not the level of sexual violence in the Congo, where one in three women will be raped.
Anyone who’s ever managed the social media sites of a news outlet will tell you the same thing. Regular outraged cries of “is this what [news outlet in question] thinks is news?” accompany the most popular updates, which often feature animals, celebrities or other stories that don’t tax the brain. By contrast, crucial political issues or economic stories barely draw a ‘like’.
Perhaps the presence of Jolie at that conference is a clever mingling of ‘entertain’ with the other two objectives mentioned above. Perhaps it was simple PR. But it did work.
Don’t take my word for it, though. James Bennett, a reader in television and digital culture at Royal Holloway, University of London, is plugging a conference of his own at the momen – the ‘Celebrity Studies Journal’ conference. All those lunchtimes watching Home & Away in college clearly did more for him than they did for me.
Dr Bennett told an English newspaper that celebrities highlighting issues could be the best way to get teenagers to learn about the world. Apart from being utterly depressing, this could well be the case. If anyone from the UN is reading, can George Clooney host the next one?

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