It’s that time of year again where once the great and the good were lauded for their respective greatness and goodness; The Queen’s Birthday honours.
In recent years it has been pleasing to see photography recognised in the lists. Worthy recipients have worked quietly and diligently to promote the medium either through their own work or by making it more accessible to others, not because they sought recognition but because they believe in the value of what they are doing. In the last list, for instance, freelance photojournalist Harry Benson was recognised for his services to photography and the community in the UK, and back in 2005 Rhonda Wilson, the creative director of Rhubarb-Rhubarb was made an MBE for her work. In fact, pretty much every list has seen someone’s work for the betterment of the medium brought to a greater audience. Consequently it is rather disappointing to see not just photography, but journalism as well, completely overlooked in the 2009 Birthday Honours list.
Instead we have what has become the sad routine of famous rich people being given a gong for being,… well, famous and rich really. To be fair, some of them have done much for charity and that is clearly worthy of recognition, but often what has been “done” is the donation of large sums of cash. In that light, consider this: a pop star worth £50 million gives £500K every year to various charities, and in due course is made a CBE at the very least, if not a knight or dame. Meanwhile, Joanna Public can give all her free time, and 10% of her income to a given charity, and the likelihood is that she will never be recognised. If she is it will be years later and a lowly MBE. The star may have “given” more, but the amount represents only 1% of their worth, and any “time” will usually be undertaken by members of their staff.
There used to be a time when most honours were given to civil servants. The concept was simple: they had given their lives to public service earning less than they might have done in the private sector, and the honour was their just reward. The problem was that the media painted this as “Buggin’s turn”, and as public sector earnings caught up with the rest of British Society and people’s careers became far more flexible, it seemed with some justification to be a little out of step with the times. There was, therefore, an opportunity to reinvigorate the honours system when New Labour came into office in 1997. But Tony could not resist the lure of “connecting” with the well connected. The resurgence of popular British culture across the globe was a golden chance to be seen to be in the thick of things that were cool, and New Labour honoured people for their celebrity and cool, and the media lapped it up without criticism or complaint. Nothing will shift copy like a famous person declaring how stunned they were to be told that they were going to be made a little more famous.
There is nothing wrong with honouring people that have done astounding things, it is honouring people who have not that rankles. Consider Sir Steve Redgrave. Here is a man who won gold medals at five consecutive Olympic games in a notably gruelling sport. By the time he won the fifth he was diabetic, suffering from ulcerative colitis and had been at the pinnacle of his sport for two decades. By any standards his is a truly remarkable achievement, and worthy of national recognition. Consider Dame Kelly Holmes on the other hand. A great athlete no doubt, but she was made a dame because she won two gold medals at the Athens Olympics. Wasn’t that her job? If we start to knight people because they have done their job the queue out of Buckingham Palace is going to get very long indeed. The consequence of this rush of love for sporting achievement reached an apogee of farce only five weeks later when Ellen MacArthur was made a dame before she was even back on dry land. What happened to waiting for the next list?
Now the public and the media have come to expect national honours to be showered on the rich and the famous for doing their job. The England Rugby Team won the world cup and they all trouped off to see the Queen. If the football team reach the quarters in the World Cup in 2010 you can be sure the pundits will start to speculate on gongs and an honorary knighthood for Fabio, but is it deserved? If they win everything going for the next 20 years like Redgrave, maybe. But I suspect the good life and the public’s adulation, however temporary, will end up with them taking their eyes off the ball.
The time really has come for a wholesale reconsideration of the honours system. Do we have to hand out a thousand every six months? If the requirements were that recipients of an honour had to have gone above and beyond the call of duty, that their actions were in the interest of community rather than self, it might mean far fewer honours, but think how much more we could applaud them for what they have done.
So where does this leave us? In an era when everyone and their mother thinks they are a photographer there are still some people quietly looking to promote excellence and skills in photography in spite of the difficulties, and many of them deserve recognition; unfortunately there are very few who are celebrities. It’s a pity space couldn’t be found for at least one alongside Sir Nick Faldo and Delia Smith CBE.