Tuesday 07 April 2020

The pitfalls of celebrity endorsements

This article first appeared on Malta Today (photo credit Illum.com.mt)

When well-known choreographer Felix Busuttil stepped out on that podium to address the Labour Party’s political rally, my immediate thought was: he’s going to be slaughtered in the arena of public opinion.

But then I thought, well, a few days before, actress Pia Zammit had stepped out on the Nationalist Party podium to address the crowd, so why should this be any different? Isn’t the right to express one’s political affiliation something which is taken for granted in a democracy?

As it turned out, my initial reaction proved to be the correct one. While there were many who applauded Felix for speaking out in favour of gay rights and endorsing the Muscat administration for making civil unions possible, the backlash against him was, to put it mildly, vicious.

To be fair, the reasons for the backlash seemed, at face value, to be justified. On seeing him on that stage, a ‘message’ had been swiftly passed round to the effect that not only was Felix Busuttil a member of the board at the Mediterranean Conference Centre (where he produces his dance shows), but that he had also been awarded a lucrative contract to the tune of 50k per year as a consultant with the Malta Arts Council. Hence, it was alleged, this was his way of saying ‘thank you’ for being put on the Government’s payroll. Seen in this light, his decision to make a speech during an election campaign represented a huge conflict of interest.

Busuttil was quick to vehemently deny the allegation of how much he was being paid, saying it was “much less”, while defending his right to be employed by the Arts Council “like any other artist”. He also pointed out that his appointment to the MCC board pre-dates this administration and that he is not given any preferential treatment but “is treated like any other producer.” He has now offered to show the public his pay slips to prove how much he is actually earning. It was clear that he was absolutely shocked by the wave of hostility directed against him.

However, in retrospect, it probably should have been obvious to Felix that this was going to happen. In fact, as many pointed out, what did he expect? Once you dip your toe into partisan politics in this country you are “labelled” for life, people make a mental note about your affiliation and It will forever be mentioned that once upon a time “you spoke at a mass meeting for X or Y”. I also think he was rather naive to think that no one would mention his taxpayer-funded appointment, and to pre-empt the criticism, he really should have declared it openly before speaking (although I don’t think that would have made any difference).

The question therefore is, in his position, should he have simply not spoken at a political rally at all? Many would say that the answer to that is yes. And while the criticism on this point was justified, what I didn’t like was how nasty and cruel some of the comments directed at him became. Why all the hate?

What this whole incident has brought into sharp focus is just why so many who are in the public eye are loathe to declare their voting intentions, let alone publicly endorse their party. Memories are long and such things are never forgotten, so most just keep their head down and their views to themselves especially in the entertainment business where, as the saying goes, you “need everyone”. Vindictiveness and paying people back is not unheard of when administrations change so the usual maxim is that you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

And yet, there is something which still niggles at me with this whole episode. Let’s put our cards on the table: as a result of decades of social class prejudice, a celebrity who admits to voting Labour has a much harder time since it colours the very way the public looks at them. This has always been the case, but in the current public mood, when being Labour is being equated to “agreeing with corruption”, the damnation is twofold.

I have also read several comments by parents who were annoyed with Felix for publicly endorsing Labour purely because they felt he should respect those who don’t agree with his political views. Of course they are entitled to feel annoyed, but isn’t he entitled to his views in the same way that so many other heads of schools in the performing arts are?

There is also one last point which has to be mentioned: if the PN win the election, will those speaking at PN rallies be offered any governmental post or consultancy here and there, and would that be considered OK or not? May I hasten to add that this is not to cast any dispersions on their suitabilities for the post, but simply because I believe in consistency. Because you see, what keeps niggling at me is whether in this country we are still measuring the supporters of the two parties by different yardsticks – even when they are celebrity supporters who are in the public eye.

Oh and one last thing: Pia Zammit has become rather famous for her parody of Michelle Muscat, and receives wide applause. Would Felix be treated in the same way if, say, he had to mimic Simon Busuttil? Just asking.

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