Diana Wichtel: Nasty peek into future of media

COMMENT

As tabloid terrorism goes, it doesn't amount to much. On the first defiantly sleazy website devoted to stalking homegrown celebrities there was, briefly, a fuzzy shot of a toddler that would be of no interest to anyone if the Hosking case hadn't kept those poor children in the news for months on end.

There were, hilariously, bits from a document claiming to be instructions to Hosking from his estranged wife on such burning matters of public interest as nappy changing.

Also on offer were pictures of Mrs Sean Fitzpatrick gardening in a sarong, allegedly taken by a plumber. What next? Sensational secret snaps of Judy Bailey bottling chutney? I knew our celebrity culture wasn't up to much, but really.

No wonder shows like Spin Doctors have trouble coming up with anything more moronic than real life.

Why are they bothering? As is so often the case, when you look behind the madder excesses of modern life there are ancient forces at work. There's the primal drive to be interviewed on Holmes. And, in this case, perhaps a desire for utu.

The site was launched by junior paparazzo Jonathan Marshall and his partner in grime, David Herkt. Both lost jobs on Queer Nation after they tailed Mike Hosking in a freelance attempt to get pictures of him doing ... anything.

Now they're getting their own back by going through his garbage. Well, whatever does it for them.

It's easy to laugh but the whole thing has been quite revealing. If ever there was a textbook case of popular culture eating itself, this is it. Observe the primitive food chain on Planet Celebrity at work: Mike Hosking made his name in current affairs, a genre famous for testing the boundaries of journalistic ethics, not to mention good taste, by door-stopping, feeding on private grief, reporting things said in the privacy of green rooms and so on.

He becomes a celebrity and is, in his turn, subject to unwanted media attention. The case against a women's mag over the publication of photos of his children has kept this "man of mystery", as Marshall likes to call him, in the news.

The smell of fresh blood attracts the attention of the bottom feeders in the food chain; even the women's mags need someone to look down on - and you get Jonathan Marshall and his website.

The outrage at seeing some fairly common media practices being taken to nasty and cynical excess makes Marshall something of a celebrity himself. Another new website, Being Jonathan Marshall, appears, publishing personal details and scuttlebutt about Marshall and his website.

Before you could say "What the ... ", the new site was "temporarily" shut down. "It appears that Jonathan Marshall's sense of humour and belief in freedom of the press does not extend to anything mentioning himself," read the message posted at the site.

Those responsible for Being Jonathan Marshall had received a legal "cease and desist", claiming the contents of the website were "grossly defamatory" and must be removed within 12 hours.

Having been busily turning up the heat in the local tabloid kitchen, it seems Marshall was finding the temperature not to his liking. In a column on Marshall's own website, David Herkt seemed delighted to have something that even he and Marshall could look down on.

He made outraged reference to Being Jonathan Marshall as "a site with a standard of proof even lower than ours, a site that was solely designed to maliciously smear an individual ... that discussed celebrity sexual habits".

This from a site that issues these invitations: "If you have a secret to share about a New Zealand celebrity - tell us in confidence. If you've shagged a New Zealand celebrity - tell us in confidence. If you have an unusual photo of a New Zealand celebrity - email it in confidence."

None of this is particularly surprising. Some women's mags have been doing an only slightly more subtle version for years. Just out in one of them are the "I was high while reading the news" confessions of former TV3 newsreader Darren McDonald.

No one could have guessed, raves the magazine, that McDonald was often "high as a kite on the drug blamed for some of the country's most appalling recent crimes, such as the RSA triple murders".

Marshall's site will have to try hard to better this sort of thing. But he's only 18 and with any luck he'll lose interest soon. Especially if exposes on celebrity nappies and where the money from the Holmes phone-in polls goes is as good as it gets.

Then he could turn his obviously considerable talents to something less depressing. As an interview with the new young star reminded me the other day, Marshall has been in the news before. Ever resourceful, he was the kid who hit the headlines by going to the Privacy Commissioner when he was suspended for smoking at school.

And he was the 16-year-old who wormed his way in behind the scenes at a Hero Parade to produce what I seem to recall was a pretty good little documentary.

So much misdirected creativity, but that's the media for you. Marshall is the child of an era of creeping - galloping really - media voyeurism and sensationalism, when anyone can be a star as long as they're willing to do whatever it takes.

There's fury over this new outrage because it is genuinely unpleasant. But the displeasure is also fuelled by an uneasy, slightly guilty feeling that we've seen the future of the media and it looks a lot like Jonathan Marshall.

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