Monday, 6 April 2009

April 2009 - Celebrities: Get them out of here?

Sulking about the fact that his earnings might be reduced in the 'witch hunt' against bankers and their bonuses, Matthew Prest, the managing director at Close Brothers investment bank whinged:

"I don't hear anybody calling for Hollywood star salary caps. This is a trendy, fashionable thing to do, it will have bad consequences."

Prest's astute analogy overlooks the minor difference between actors and investment bankers - specifically that actors do not possess the capacity to bring the global economy to its knees, are unlikely to play poker with our savings and mortgages, and have never (Tom Cruise aside) declared themselves 'masters of the universe'. But does the moody MD have a point? Should we be asking questions about big salaries outside the banking sector - especially if the fame and fortune of our prized celebrities seems at odds with their forays into political advocacy?

Marina Hyde, the nemesis of vaccuous celebrities who venture into politics, published a book this week railing against the increasing number of famous folk who seem to be suffering from baffling cases of mission creep. Sharon Stone famously declared that she would kiss 'almost anyone' for peace in the Middle East. Angelina Jolie patrolled Afghanistan in a green flak jacket and 'attended' the World Economic Forum in Davos with husband Brad Pitt. Bob Geldof took his rightful place alongside the leaders of the world's most powerful nations on the fringe of the g20 meeting in London last week. Its easy to sneer at these glitzy people outside of their comfort zone. But its also difficult not to feel angered by the incongruity between the high earning, high consuming lifestyles of these uber-capitalists, and the political causes they champion. So when is it OK for celebrities to endorse 'good causes'? And are climate celebrities a help or a hinderance?

Bono is a very rich and very famous celebrity who regularly appears at high profile political events and meetings - most notably during the Jubilee campaign to drag the developed nations towards meeting their Millenium Development Goals. However, despite imploring the British and Irish Governments do to more to meet the Development Goals, Bono does not pay tax in his home country of Ireland. Rather, he keeps his substantial sums of money in the (lower taxing) Netherlands. Considering that tax paying is the primary means of generating government income - to be spent on matters such as meeting the Millenium Development Goals - Bono's offshore accounting flatly contradicts his political campaigning. The choices that Bono makes regarding his personal finances undermine so thoroughly his moral stance on poverty reduction, that even the mention of his name raises the heckles of any charitable tax payer. Why should we listen to a man who wants more money spent on eradicating world poverty, when he will not even contribute from his own (immense) income?

Bono's case illustrates an important point - that 'practicing what you preach' is a principle with almost universal appeal. For some political causes, it isnt obvious what the 'practice' bit might be - we can march against Israel's occupation of Gaza, but aside from some boycotting of produce, how can we 'practice' what we preach?

When it comes to tackling climate change, however, consistency between our principles and our behaviour is paramount. No-one wants to be lectured about driving less by a woman in a Chelsea Tractor. The UK cannot murmour darkly about the proliferation of Chinese coal-fired power stations whilst simultaneously erecting them at home. And despite being one of the slimiest creatures to have emerged from New Labour's trigger happy, city-slicker regime, Geoff Hoon might just have had a point when he questioned whether Emma Thompson's opposition to a third runway at Heathrow was compromised by the number of international awards ceremonies she attends.

Almost by definition, celebrities are likely to have high-carbon existences. Wealth is one of the biggest determinants of an individual's carbon footprint, and most modern celebs have a globalised lifestyle to match their image. Even celebrities that 'mean it' are likely to use more carbon than the average person (just ask Thom Yorke). So are there any celebrities who can claim to be genuinely green?

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