New York Times and Guardian join forces to create new celebrities

Serious people are used to thinking badly of ‘celebrity culture’ and serious news outlets are even more badly disposed towards stars like Justin and Miley, Tamara and Paris. They either ignore them completely or sneer at them because these stars are, as everyone knows, shallow, stupid and deeply materialistic. Millions of people may read about them and want to know what their houses and hairstyles are like, but this is merely a sad reflection of the unbudgeable stupidity of modern civilisation. Before they even judge any celebrity in particular, the high-minded news organisations tend to be suspicious of the very idea of having heroes, people one looks up to, listens to carefully and gawps at the pictures of. Shouldn’t you just go your own way?

Such attitudes may sound sensible and noble, but they are in truth deeply irresponsible and counterproductive. The impulse to admire and have heroes is an important part of human nature. Ignoring or condemning it won’t kill it off; it simply forces it underground, where it lurks undeveloped, prone to latch on to inappropriate targets – like Paris Hilton.

Human beings need and will always look for role models. We therefore shouldn’t complain about or eradicate ‘celebrity culture.’ We need to improve it, bringing a better kind of person to the fore of public consciousness: we need better celebrities rather than no celebrities. Rather than try to suppress our love of celebrity, we ought to channel it in optimally intelligent and fruitful directions. A properly organised society would be one where the best-known people (the ones whose parties and holiday photos and clothes and new hairstyles we looked at most often) were those who embodied and reinforced the highest, noblest and most socially beneficial values.

Ironically, it is entirely in the power of serious news organisations to take on the task of celebrity creation. Rather than complain about those the Daily Mail and the New York Post have developed, they would have the chance to start on the business of celebrity-creation on their own.

In its golden age, the ancient city state of Athens was unembarrassed about celebrity culture. It had some legendary celebrities: statesmen like Pericles and Demosthenes, athletes like Philammon the Olympic boxer and Chabrias the chariot racer and musicians like Melanippides and Anakreon. These figures were looked up to as guides to the manners and morals of an entire society.

We need to go the same way. We need serious news outlets to engage with the task of identifying and then promoting a raft of original celebrities. We need them to pick out for us the clever and kind actors, research scientists, molecular biologists, poets, venture capitalists, mothers, nurses, cleaners and parking attendants, the very many people who would be more appropriate targets of celebrity than those we know today – people whose physiques, attitudes and routines we should constantly have paraded before us through enticing photography and heart-warming anecdotes.

The job of serious news outlets is to make the celebrity section no less exciting than it is now, and yet ensure that it features people who will spark our imaginations and help us lead our lives wisely and ambitiously, because they have something properly consoling and good to tell us. Celebrity stories should, in their mature form, make up one of the most serious, worthwhile sections of the most serious news organisations.

He needs to be a celeb but isn’t yet: Ha-Joon Chang, Cambridge economist with terrific ideas about how to change the world. Let’s see him at the beach, doing the grocery shopping and at a few parties.