Imagine you're a retired, premiership footballer or a pop star. Imagine that you make more money in a day than most people make in a year. Imagine you've got over five million followers on Twitter. What do you tweet about? What you had for dinner or the inhumane treatment of refugee children? While plenty of celebrities opt for the former, Gary Lineker has stuck his head above the parapet by offering his opinions on the deepening refugee crisis. Lineker incurred the wrath of fellow Twitter users when he commented on the row about whether adults were being accepted into Britain as unaccompanied children in a scheme to resettle refugees from the Calais camp.
With the Sun newspaper claiming it was a "fiasco" for British authorities to take their ages on trust and the Conservative MP David Davies calling for dental checks to be used to verify ages (a proposal later rejected by the Home Office as "unethical") Lineker tweeted:
"The treatment by some towards these young refugees is hideously racist and utterly heartless. What's happening to our country?"
After which, the former England footballer and sports broadcaster received a torrent of abuse from other Twitter users and a call (from Ukip spokesman Patrick O'Flynn,) to be sacked from Match of the Day for expressing political views on the issue. The singer, Lily Allen, faced a similar backlash earlier this month after visiting the Calais migrant camp and apologising to a 13 year old boy from Afghanistan "on behalf of my country." Her actions prompted The Daily Star to scream that Allen was a "sobbing luvvie", while The Sun's headline read "Maybe they could stay in your lovely £2m pad, Lily?"
It's unsurprising that certain sections of the press don't seem keen on celebrities sticking their necks out on issues of public and political significance, especially when they aren't singing from the same hymn sheet. The ease and speed of social media means that celebrities don't have to rely on journalists to air their views but famous names and the media can form powerful partnerships, resulting in shifts in public and political opinion. Following the late, reality TV star Jade Goody's very public battle with cervical cancer, the overall number of women in the UK aged 25 to 64 who got their NHS screenings from March 2008 until March 2009 - the period of Goody's diagnosis, illness and death - rose about 12%. In the NHS's annual review of the cervical screening programme, this rise was largely attributed to 'the Jade Goody effect.'
Working as a campaigner, I've experienced how celebrity support can bring a higher public profile to a cause that isn't getting much traction. We live in an age where celebrity news and gossip is gobbled up on a daily basis, whether we like to admit to reading it or not. So why not use that interest and curiosity for the common good? It's all too easy to be a bit sniffy about celebrity support being applied to a cause. Celebs are often seen as lacking in intellectual capacity and compassion. What could they possibly know and how could they understand? Well, the truth is, plenty of famous people have time and money on their hands and want to give back. And I've worked with celebrities whose passion for and knowledge about a cause more than matches that of people who have been working in politics or the charity sector for years.
The inclusion of a famous name isn't always a magic campaign ingredient and it certainly doesn't guarantee success - think of the disastrous partnership between Russell Brand and Ed Miliband pre-2015 general election. People tend to be sceptical if celebrity support looks staged or forced. Authenticity and a genuine passion for the cause is key. But there's no doubt that celebrities can be an important way of reaching new and previously unaware audiences. Not everyone listens to Radio 4 and watches Newsnight on a regular basis. Many people choose to get their news online and via social media, without ever turning the TV on. So why shouldn't celebrities be taken seriously when it comes to communicating about political issues? Those of us who feel passionately about campaigning for change, particularly in relation to the current, toxic climate around refugee and asylum issues, need to think about new and innovative ways of starting conversations with people who aren't already in agreement with us.
The USA, a country much more at ease with celebrity culture, embraces high profile campaign support with predictable style and aplomb. Who could forget the photographs of Beyonce, Jay-Z and President Obama laughing and chatting about their kids on the 2012 campaign trail? But celebrity involvement in politics currently has a darker side. As I write this, Las Vegas is gearing up for the finale of Clinton vs Trump, the hottest ticket in town. The man who fronted 'Celebrity Apprentice' is now mere steps away from the White House. His appeal is often attributed to his ability to be real, to 'say it like it is.' And that's the flip side. Celebrities, despite their wealth and fame, are just like us. They can be a seductive alternative to establishment figures and their plain speaking a welcome departure from impenetrable political rhetoric. If celebrity support can be used to unite people and raise awareness, it can also be used to divide and the rhetoric can be just as empty. But I'm applauding Gary and Lily for their words and actions. I wish more people with a public profile would challenge prejudice and stand up for the most vulnerable members of our society. At this particular, political moment, campaigners need all the help they can get.
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