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Why it always pays to play yourself

How quaint that phrase “kiss and tell” is beginning to sound. It suddenly seems to belong to a lost age of polite euphemism, like “taking a liberty” or “no better than she should be”. When some knackered old court correspondent, churning out tedious speculation as part of the nationally embarrassing coverage of the latest royal story, discusses whether Kate Thingy will be tempted to kiss and tell, only the most desperate royalist will be able to read on. No one merely kisses these days, and everyone tells.

Gordon Brown has recently offered the view that the pointless fascination with celebrity is fading, that “people are moving away from that to what lies behind the character and personality”, but the news almost every day refutes this view. In today’s great burgeoning of the blab culture, character and personality are merely products being sold in the celebrity bazaar.

Politicians are in no position to complain about the trend since they are part of it themselves. The latest register of MPs’ extra-curricular earnings reveals that the money being made from chat shows, books and appearances is very respectable. The shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, has pulled down £550,000 from speaking engagements since November 2005, contributing to his non-parliamentary earnings of just under £800,000. David Blunkett is on a cool £585,000, largely at the expense of the publishers, Bloomsbury, who paid handsomely for his diaries, the publishing turkey of the year.

Down among Westminster’s showbiz tarts (£10,000 for hosting a satirical quiz, £5,000 for appearing on Grumpy Old Women, £150,000 for impersonating a cat on Celebrity Big Brother) are Boris Johnson, Ann Widdecombe and George Galloway.

These people are exploiting their image as surely as any topless model is. Just as Jordan impersonates the sex-bomb the public believe her to be, so Boris plays the Old Etonian buffoon, Ann acts the starchy head matron, George is the suave, cigar-smoking card.

It is now entirely acceptable for anyone in the public eye to exploit their position for private gain. Doing a high-profile or important job, whether in politics, show-business, the civil service, comedy, the armed forces or sport, has ceased to be an end or responsibility in itself. The telling has become more important than the doing. So Alastair Campbell will soon be playing the game with his diaries and, after that, who can doubt that more, and more often, senior civil servants will deem it their right to do some telling, too?

Now and then, the corpse of decorum and public service twitches and seems to be alive. Sailors, we discovered last week, are not supposed to become celebrities, however good their story may be. But then it was revealed that the Second Sea Lord Adrian Johns has been available for hire on HMS Victory. The admiral would, if the money was right, wear full regalia and act as a paid host for private parties that wanted entertainment with a difference – a sort of upmarket version of hiring a stripping vicar.

On that occasion, the admiral would have been raising money for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, but the fact that even senior officers are prepared to exploit image for profit suggests that a form of kissing and telling has reached every part of our society.

Playing the part of a politician, a civil servant or an admiral has become every bit as important as doing it for real – and is usually a lot more lucrative.

* With offence of one kind or another being taken on a daily basis, an interesting pastime is to identify where the next attack of sensitivity is going to break out. Bryan Ferry was bound to be in trouble as soon as he dared to praise Nazi aesthetics. Inevitably, that was seen as tantamount to supporting the Third Reich, there was general huffiness and, wetly, he apologised.

The next person to have his collar felt by the offensiveness police will be Hanif Kureishi, whose “Weddings and Beheadings”, short-listed for the National Short Story Prize, concerns a cameraman in Baghdad who films the beheading of hostages. With Radio 4 banning it, there has already been muttering about the author’s insensitivity. Let us hope that, win or lose, there are no apologies from Kureishi.

* According to a survey this week, the English are one of the most miserable nations in Europe (the Danes are incredibly cheerful, apparently). Last week, another startling survey revealed that a shocking 54 per cent (or something like that) of all English people are unable to sleep for fear of terrorism, identity theft or health problems. Then, over the weekend, there was a truly shocking survey that exposed villages as being hotbeds of prejudice compared to towns.

So the dreary trend continues. Each of these silly polls merely confirms the pointless cliché of the moment: Britain is screwed up, men are hopeless, people who work in offices would like to see more of their children, our teenagers are the worst in the world, and children are spoilt, insecure and precocious.

Maybe it is time to ignore those people with clipboards, asking silly questions. Most of these surveys are covert advertising, with an unreliable sample, catering to our unattractive national weakness for being told how terrible everything is in our family.