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Hello! to Privatisation

Essays in Magazine Media, No 4, December 2012

Andrew Calcutt

Hello!  was launched in Britain in 1988. Then, as now, it was mainly made up of colour photos of young and successful people taken in a domestic setting – either at home, or with the children, or both. This is an unusually strict diet, which had never been seen before in the UK magazines market.

Hello!  turned out to be a huge success: not only in commercial terms, it also set the trend towards ‘celebrity culture’; but its appeal was not entirely straightforward. Hello!’s readers quickly learned to apply an extra layer of scrutiny, so that featured celebrities who were meant to be admired and even adored, also came to serve as a source of unintended amusement. Yes, readers revelled in the plush interiors and luxury lifestyles on display; also, in the magazine’s early days, in the new-found luxury of full colour photography. But their consumption of Hello! was more knowing than the straightforward celebration of youth, wealth and beauty which the magazine’s producers originally had in mind. Furthermore, Hello’s readers went on to apply this knowingness both to the magazine itself and to themselves reading it. Soon it was widely accepted that Hello! is almost irresistible but at the same time mildly though not inadmissibly embarrassing – something like the cream cake you shouldn’t be eating, or the cigarette you really shouldn’t be smoking. Readers catching themselves in the act of reading, became part of the guilty pleasure associated with Hello!

This essay explains both the initial attraction of Hello!, i.e. how it spoke directly to a particular moment in British social history, and the additional layer of critical self-consciousness which readers subsequently brought to it – even as they have continued reading and buying the magazine in large numbers. (The publisher’s website currently cites ABC-audited sales of 413,311 each week.) But in order to establish the particulars of Hello!, we must first recapitulate and then extend what we know about mediation.

Other essays in this series have established that magazines normally play a mediating role; moreover, this role has two dimensions. First, magazines help to create the middle ground which constitutes the shared space between otherwise atomised individuals. Thus they contribute to our socialisation. As magazines download the world, or a subsection of it, for their readers to enter into, so they also upload their readership into as many subdivisions of the world as there are magazines depicting them. When magazines perform this aspect of their mediating role, readers come to be connected with the world(s) beyond their own, immediate experience, and with other human beings beyond the narrow range of their own, immediate acquaintance.

Yet there is a further sense in which magazines perform a mediating role. In the modern world human experience is inherently contradictory; so too is the recurring position of billions of people whose lives have been caught up in that continuum of contradiction which is perhaps more widely known as ‘capitalism’. In the nineteenth century, journalism (including magazine journalism) was reconfigured to take account of this predicament, and Charles Dickens was first among the journalists who took on the extra responsibilities which it entailed. From now on, the middle ground or mediating space opened up by journalism, was also the place where social contradiction was seen to be addressed and, up to a point, resolved.

Since Dickens’ time, magazines have generally offered a reading of contemporary contradiction (or some, small aspect thereof), combined with partial resolution of that contradiction in terms consistent with each, particular magazine’s own reading of it. But the way that magazines read social contradictions and write up their resolution, is often a mixture of fantasy and reality. In their reading of real-life contradictions, the latter are often made to look more manageable than they really are, i.e. real contradiction is translated into something which is part-real, part-fantasy. The fantasy element means that magazines are formulated partly as a distraction or diversion from reality, even though the performance of their mediating role has real social consequences. To paraphrase W.B. Yeats, the centre could not hold, things would fall apart, if not for the mediating role performed in part by magazines and their three-fold promise – distraction, contradiction, and resolution jointly amounting to the fantastic mediation of social reality.

If all publications perform a mediating role, they do not all perform it in the same way. To the contrary, their performances vary a great deal. For more than a century, magazines and newspapers together comprised a mediating axis between the individual and society. They helped to connect the individual with society, but the distinction between newspapers and magazines also served to differentiate private interests from the public interest. In London, this axis was reproduced in the location of newspaper and magazine offices in a straight line along first Fleet Street (newspapers) and then the Strand (magazines). Like magazines and newspapers themselves, these thoroughfares are adjacent but also distinct.

Located on and around the Strand, those titles with a tendency to gravitate towards the private and particular, came to be defined asmagazines. Meanwhile Fleet Street became known as such for its tendency to generalise rather than specialise: newspapers tended to cluster at the public end of the private-public axis, where they habitually performed their distinctive contribution to journalism’s mediating role in concert with the class-based political activity (Labour Party versus Conservative capitalists) which until recently made up the bulk of their column inches.

Identifying the particular combination of fantasy and reality peculiar to each publication, is also a way of locating its position on the axis between individual and society. Publications which purport to address social contradictions in primarily individual terms, are obliged to be diverting. Since their mode of address is ultimately unrealistic, they also tend towards the fantastic. In most magazines (by no means all of them), society’s predicament is presented as a series of threats experienced by individuals. Magazines also present these same individuals with the opportunity to address such threats and resolve their own, personal difficulties. In this unrealistically narrow purview, the broader pattern of essential, societal contradiction is inadmissible – it is nowhere to be seen; and to this extent in the performance of their mediating role, magazines tend to offer a fantastic resolution of contradictions which are really derived from social order rather than individual behaviour. Hence ‘glossy magazines’: not only for their shiny paper, but also for their fantastic gloss on the reality of social contradiction.

As fantasy is a recurring feature of magazines, so distraction often looms large in their make-up, compared to acknowledging contradiction as it really is, and/or offering resolution. Alternatively, contradiction and resolution are presented in a distracting or fantastic way rather than a realistic one. For example, a 1940s movie magazine such as Photoplay replied to the contradictions in the lives of its readers with a form of resolution that was highly romanticised and individuated. In its studied unreality, Photoplay magazine was more diverting than, say, The New York Times newspaper, which has always aimed to get a grip on reality, for and on behalf of its educated readership. Accordingly, at one and the same time these two publications occupied vastly different positions on the axis between social reality and individually-oriented fantasy. Moreover, their respective positions on this axis were also aligned to the contemporary distinction between magazines and newspapers.

The preceding section has offered an explanation for the different positions occupied by various publications on the axis of mediating activity performed by journalism as a whole. Aside from the respective positions occupied by individual titles, however, there have been occasions when the whole of journalism has tilted on its axis, usually in accordance with fundamental social change. When this happens, the entire range of publications is affected; each title can be seen moving along the axis between public and private, in one direction or the other.

This level of social change did indeed take place in Britain in the period leading up to the launch of Hello! in 1988. Hello!’s immediate success was partly a reflection of what had already occurred in British society throughout the 1980s; but the novel combination of fantasy and reality to be found in Hello! also provided its readership with a new way of mediating the social contradictions which continued to shape their lives. In the performance of this mediating role, the fantasy world of Hello! made a difference to the way people actually experienced what was really happening to them.

Hello!’s success was momentous because it was the magazine for a specific moment in Britain’s recent history. Its address to the contemporary social predicament, was fully in line with the formative experience of the decade – the defeat of the labour movement after a succession of arduous strikes (steelworkers 1981-2; miners 1984-5; printworkers 1986-7, among others), and the discrediting of socialism in favour of privatisation.

In this context, the term ‘privatisation’ does not refer only to the sale of public utilities such as council housing and British Telecom. Such instances of ‘popular capitalism’ should be understood as part of a wider trend which amounted to the reconfiguration of social life on the basis that ‘there is no such thing as society….only individuals and their families.’ In accordance with this declaration, issued by prime minister Margaret Thatcher in a magazine interview given at the height of her political power in October 1987, Hello! (1988) duly provided a picture of the world cropped so tightly that ‘individuals and their families’ – successful individuals in their family setting – comprised the only discernible form of human being.

Thatcher’s Conservative government had won the class war, her right-wing outlook was dominant, and it was only reasonable to assume that ‘there is no alternative’ (another of the prime minister’s declarations) to this extremely narrow characterisation of modern life. In these circumstances, admiring the success stories in Hello!, perhaps even envying the celebrities featured in them, was an entirely plausible response.

In accordance with the traditional role of magazines, Hello! continued to download a slice of the world for the reader’s benefit; conversely, the reader was (briefly) uploaded into that life world. But the way in which Hello! performed this role was unprecedented. It was primarily aimed at women readers in the C1/C2 category, who might previously have indulged themselves in the News of the World. But instead of inky pages and a robust attitude towards the rich and powerful, Hello! offered plush printing and the unadulterated celebration of material success. In 1988, it implicitly invited its readers, especially those in the relatively prosperous South-East of England, to thumb their noses at all the (Northern) casualties of deindustrialisation during that decade. Hello! addressed contemporary social contradiction by cropping the losers out of the picture; effectively dismissing them.

Whereas publications like Woman’s Own had always shut the door on the outside world, they had never denied the existence of the (man’s) world outside. But Hello! went much further. It identified the wider world with the domestic interiors inhabited by young, successful people: this is the modern world, it said. Of course it was fantasy – Hello! embodies a fantastically individuated resolution of intractable, social contradiction. But in the social context of the time, why not luxuriate in it? ‘There is no alternative’, after all. Furthermore, it’s official: ‘there is no such thing as society’. Accordingly, if Hello!’s picture stories could not possibly envisage the millions of working class people who had lost out as a result of recent social change, this is because, under the terms of Thatcherite orthodoxy, they – along with society – simply did not exist.

The above is not, even for a moment, to suggest that Hello! was conceived as political propaganda; rather that, in privatising society into a series of fantastic, domestic tableaux, it dovetailed with the declaration that ‘there is no such thing as society’; and matched the mood of a moment in history in which socialism was seen to be defeated. (It is fitting that Hello! was modelled on Hola!, the publishing success of General Franco’s post-fascist Spain.) Thus Hello! introduced British magazine readers to a form of mediation which was both timely and heavily truncated. Capturing the moment of privatisation, it anticipated the personalisation of news which emerged alongside the further development of celebrity culture. In this respect, Hello’s influence was felt across the magazine sector and throughout journalism as a whole: it helped to tip the whole axis of mediation away from public life towards the private realm. But Hello! itself contained a further contradiction which was to make itself
felt just as widely. By offering an especially myopic solution to the contemporary social predicament, this particular magazine title also anticipated yet another predicament for magazines and their readers.

As we have seen, in general terms magazines have been successful because they succeed in making social contradiction appear more manageable in the mind’s eye of individual readers. They render the unliveable, liveable, largely by the way they re-describe it. This is to reiterate the earlier point that magazines exist on a continuum between fantasy and reality, often with one foot at each end.

But what if the ends are so far apart, and the continuum so thinly stretched across such a wide spread, that the magazine’s position becomes untenable, at least in its original terms? If so, either the magazine has to change, or the reader’s attitude to it will change for the worse, i.e. the punters stop buying.

In the case of Hello!, the distance between fantasy and reality was so wide that it ceased to be a continuum and became a further contradiction. At this point, though the magazine itself did not change very much, the way its readers’ approached it, seems to have altered considerably. Not that they stopped buying, however; rather, they stopped buying in to the straightforward celebration of success and instead started looking at it askance – sideways, from a consciously critical angle. Already they were reading Hello! in a manner that its writers and photographers had not originally intended, bringing a greater intelligence to it than its content ostensibly requires.

In their knowing approach to celebrities, Hello! readers raised the curtain on the second act of celebrity culture in which the gap between fantasy and reality is made explicit, so that we now know we are commuting between these two whenever when we talk about the damaged gods featured in
celebrity magazines. Meanwhile, instead of being applied to magazine content by readers without the publisher’s knowledge, as in the case ofHello!, this level of knowingness was subsequently designed in to the re-vamped version of Heat, re-launched in 2000 around Big Brother and viewers’ critical attitudes towards the ‘wannabe slebs’ of Reality TV.

Heat and Hello! have been close rivals ever since. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, both titles continued to exercise considerable influence in the magazine sector and throughout British journalism.

First floated at the high tide of privatisation, celebrity magazines went on to invite us to share our intelligence in an open-ended conversation about fantasy and reality. This comprised a form of social interaction, post-privatisation. But it is hardly an expansive form of socialisation; instead it is limited to constant, self-consciously critical chit-chat about celebrities. Not so much squared, this is more like intelligence cornered. Though concerns about ‘dumbing down’ are wildly misplaced, in the performance of their mediating role, celebrity magazines have hardly been uplifting. By no means as bad as they have been made out to be in some quarters, compared to the likes of Addison and Steele they make a poor showing of what it means to be human.

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