Newsweek recently published a profile of actor George Clooney’s work in the Sudan, where he and others assisted in providing oversight of the referendum vote for independence in the south. Said Newsweek:
Clooney has been leveraging his celebrity to get people to care about something more important than celebrity. South Sudan’s January referendum for independence was quickly followed by uprisings that toppled North African and Arab dictatorships, with power moving away from centralized political bureaucracies and toward broader popular engagement. In this new environment—fueled by social networking—fame is a potent commodity that can have more influence on public debate than many elected officials and even some nation-states.
Clooney is quoted saying:
“It’s harder for authoritarian regimes to survive, because we can circumvent old structures with cell phones and the Internet…. Celebrity can help focus news media where they have abdicated their responsibility. We can’t make policy, but we can ‘encourage’ politicians more than ever before.”
Two development writers, Neelika Jayawardane and Sean Jacobs, for the blog “Africa is a Country” (that’s a joke, by the way) are not at all impressed. They say:
So Clooney has “begun to define a new role for himself: 21st century celebrity statesman.” And what spoils does that title bring him? We learn that Clooney “has Sudanese rebel leaders on speed dial. He’s had AK-47s shoved in his chest. And when he’s on movie sets, he gets daily Sudan briefings via email.” Serious.
The problem, say the bloggers, is that the media attention Clooney hopes to bring to the issue seems to remain focused on him:
We also learn, inadvertently, how the media prioritizes resources; most of them are not in South Sudan for the birth of a new nation–that sunrise moment in which everything seems possible and impossible. They’re there to cover Mr Clooney: “… Alerted that he was heading for Abyei [‘the oil-rich contested region’ in South Sudan], the networks dispatched cameras to an area without pavement or plumbing, 550 miles from the nearest city.”
Weirdest of all in the Newsweek piece, write Jacobs and Jayawardane, is the claim made by a Clooney publicist that the actor’s work in the Sudan likely helped encourage the massive protest movement now rocking the Arab world and Middle East.
Yeah, that may be a bit of a stretch.