While watching RTE’s Six One News last Friday evening I was struck by the inclusion of a piece on pop star Britney Spears, who had earlier that day been removed by force from her home in California after refusing to hand over her children to their father, her estranged partner, who has legal custody of them. The images that accompanied the report were of a distressed looking young girl, strapped to a trolley, being wheeled into an ambulance by medics. I instantly wondered about the ‘news’ value of such an item. Did we, as a nation, need this information? Did it inform us in any way? Did we learn anything from it or was it just gratuitous voyeurism into a highly personal situation for this young, very obviously dysfunctional family. Turning over to Sky News the piece was also being relayed there. I looked at the images again and couldn’t help feeling that witnessing this event was very wrong on every level.

As viewers we have become vultures for picking apart the private lives of celebrities. Whatever Britney Spears is, or isn’t, in this situation she was a vulnerable young woman with serious problems that involved her innocent children. There is little doubt that the media attention adds to the distress as it couldn’t have been helpful in any way. By Sunday the story had made the front pages of the print media and once again the details were being picked over. Regardless of her fame I really can’t see any justification for such an invasion. These are real people, real lives – not just characters from a fictional TV series.

The other question is how come the TV cameras were there so quickly to capture the event. Someone must have informed them and one has to assume that it can only have come from the inside, supposedly close friends, family or maybe even the couple themselves. The responsibility here lies with the media. They may have been informed but they didn’t have to act. Likewise editors in TV news rooms didn’t have to use the story, but they did. They used it because it is the general consensus that this is what the viewing public desires, (that’s you and me by the way!) What on earth have we become?

The invasion into the private lives of public figures is an ongoing debate. In the past I have had little sympathy for celebrities in particular, believing that if you use the media for personal gain when you need it, then you have to take the consequences on the other side of the coin also. I would still hold this belief if they screw up professionally. For example had Britney thrown a wobbly and refused to perform at a concert then that’s fair game. Had she been out in public and done something stupid, again, it goes with the territory; she chose such a career path. However, to be in your own home having a dispute with your ex-husband that ends up involving police and medics is surely a very private issue. She didn’t kill anyone, and the ‘crime’ involved, not handing over her children, was a domestic situation that was really none of anyone’s business except those involved. We shouldn’t even have an opinion on such a matter.

Why do we enjoy such stories? Is it because we feel that celebrities are much more privileged than the rest of us and therefore if their weaknesses are exposed we can feel better about ourselves? Are we comforted by the fact that despite bucket loads of money and fame that these people are not necessarily any happier than us?

We have an insatiable appetite for details. Celebrities themselves help fan the flames by happily divulging intimate details about their private lives, their difficult childhoods, their abusive parents or partners, their personal battles with addictions and the subsequent overcoming. When it suits them they love to talk, we love to hear it. Entire magazines are devoted to such nonsense and daily newspapers willingly surrender pages to such ‘news’. It would have to be acknowledged that at times we can identify with these people’s problems and occasionally we may even learn from it, but most of the time it is just pointless, useless chewing gum for the brain; of no intrinsic nutritional value whatsoever.

Celebrities feel familiar but we don’t know them. When they get caught unawares by the paparazzi in scruffy tracksuit bottoms and stained t-shirts, we delight in such pictures of spots and greasy hair as it turns them once again into mere mortals, not the unattainable visions of perfection and happiness presented to us on the red carpets of awards’ ceremonies. The truth is we want it both ways. We want them to look beautiful so we can aspire to such levels but every now and again we want to tear them down so that they don’t get too far beyond our reach. This double mindedness causes us to cross lines that inevitably cause anguish.

I’m not suggesting that we feel sorry for all celebrities, they bring much of it upon themselves, but for 2008 I’m avoiding the rubbish. If someone is bringing out a book, a new album, starring in a new movie or has something of value to contribute then, fair enough, I’m happy to consider it ‘Showbiz’ news and part of popular culture, but if they’re having a nervous breakdown I really don’t want to know!