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Why are coppers stalking celebrities?

The police are taking their lead from reality TV shows and gossip columns.

Neil Davenport

Topics Culture

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It’s not often that Celebrity Big Brother provides us with insights into society, but the furore surrounding Pete Burns’ gorilla coat surely does. Officers from the Hertfordshire Constabulary took the coat from the Big Brother house on Thursday 19 January after a ‘number of complaints’ from viewers. They tested the coat to see if the offending item was made from genuine gorilla fur (if it was, Pete Burns could face a jail sentence). Now it turns out that the coat is made from colobus monkeys, a protected species, and the Crown Prosecution Service is considering whether to prosecute. To revive a well-worn cliché: haven’t the police got anything better to do?

Hardly a week goes by without the police bleating that they would like ‘a quiet word’ with a celebrity over some alleged incident. Since September 2005, Sir Ian Blair of the Metropolitan Police Force has routinely told the press that he wants to interview Kate Moss about her alleged cocaine use. Perhaps the most ludicrous bout of celebrity policing was in 2002, when Welsh police interviewed the then director of the BBC, Greg Dyke, about Anne Robinson’s rant against the Welsh on Room 101. As was recently revealed, the police spent nearly £4,000 and over 100 hours investigating Robinson’s jokes about the Welsh.

Then there was the proposed action by North Wales Police last September, when they reportedly planned to question UK prime minister Tony Blair for saying ‘fucking Welsh’ in private six years ago. And more recently there have been calls from some politicians for the singer Morrissey to be investigated, after he made comments supporting violent animal rights extremists.

What is driving this celebrity chasing? As Mick Hume has pointed out, part of the reason why police chiefs are increasingly cracking down on celebrities is because it is assumed that anyone in the public eye should be a role model to young people. (Though quite why anyone would look up to the likes of Michael Barrymore is anyone’s guess.)

The police often claim that they are only responding to complaints from the public. Since when did hard-nosed coppers jump simply because a member of the public told them to? Police officers weren’t traditionally graced with social skills or helpfulness towards the general public. Today’s police are very keen to show that they are a ‘service’, not a force. As such, no grievance aired by individuals is considered too small or petty to follow up. In fact, the police encourage people to notify them about anything they find offensive. Thus reality TV programmes and snooping on celebrities become ideal vehicles for the police to make legitimising connections with the public.

The police have lost their old role as the constabulary of class conflict, when they policed picket lines and political demonstrations. Now they are looking for a new role for themselves. Thus if George Galloway believes Celebrity Big Brother can boost support for radical left politics, the police apparently believe it can do the same for them too.

Both police and politicians are suffering from doubt about their role in society. Unfortunately, today’s culture of fear means that people, far from being suspicious of the police, often invite them into their lives. No doubt some will think that questioning Pete Burns over his ‘gorilla’ coat is excessive, but it’s accepted as common sense that the police are now there to protect us from the comments and beliefs of others. Since what is deemed offensive grows predictably broader each year, it seems that the police will be busy writing press releases for a long time yet.

Haven’t they got anything better to do? When it comes to legitimising their intrusive role in society, clearly the answer is no.

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Topics Culture

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