What is immoral? Cheap stories about celebrities taking drugs

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The Independent Culture
I KNEW a drug-dealer once. He was a good friend of mine, in fact, and he used to cycle round north London with largish amounts of cannabis placed in the pockets of a small rucksack. This was back in the mid-Seventies, and the pedalling peddler was welcome everywhere. Since you couldn't nip down to the pub and ask for a packet of spliffs across the bar, the arrival of the teenage Otto (as I shall call him) was the only guarantee of your getting your jollies that weekend.

Otto made what seemed (in those penurious days) to be a lot of money out of this enterprise, and it financed several evenings at the local tandoori house. Any criticisms I heard of him at the time had more to do with his enthusiastic embracing of free-market principles than with the fact that he dealt in drugs. He is now a settled man in his early forties, with several kids and a socially useful job.

Which, perhaps, he should now be hounded out of. I mean, years ago he was selling illegal drugs. And this week's case of the England rugby captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, seems to suggest that time cannot be allowed to be a healer. When he was 18 Dallaglio was - according to his taped confession as published in the News of the World - driving around London with packets of cocaine. Nearly a decade later, he (allegedly) dropped E, snorted lines of cocaine and smoked dope, all in celebration of the British Lions' remarkable victory in South Africa. For these crimes, the court of public opinion (as convened in numerous newspapers and on the BBC) considers him - if guilty - of being unfit to be an international rugby player.

This spasm of self-righteousness, this Pavlovian response to the word "drug", this unthinking reflex, is unlikely to be mitigated by the knowledge that Dallaglio's adolescence was damaged by the death of his sister in the Marchioness disaster. Or by the fact that he is young, just 27 now, which for men these days is barely post-pubertal. Any group of people who can make (as happened yesterday) the absurd and boneheaded conflation of recreational drugs with performance-enhancing drugs, are not really open to appeal.

Ironically, some top athletes no longer take vast, legal amounts of alcohol - as used to be the bad old tradition. Booze, of course, is far too calorific and damaging to the health - ask Gazza. And yet we say - as one woman sportscaster did on Radio 5 yesterday - that the position of a drug-taker is "untenable". "You can't," she went on, "have someone playing rugby who's taken drugs."

This is a weird morality, where it's supposed to be OK to beat the wife, or drink yourself silly, but wrong to smoke cannabis or to espouse reincarnation. Or, to simplify the proposition: skinhead good, hippie bad.

It's all about role models, apparently: the young will be more likely to dabble in drugs knowing that their heroes do. But this horse has long bolted; and the stable is not so much empty as razed to the ground. Among young people in modern Britain (as it was among the group of teenagers in which I grew up), the attitude to drugs is one of consumer evaluation. Legality merely affects supply and openness of use. The young need to know that bad drugs taken badly can kill, as can alcohol and tobacco. The task now is to educate them about the use and abuse of all narcotics and stimulants. We may not like this, but the ritual cooking and eating of Lawrence Dallaglio will only have the effect of making youngsters even more amazed at our hypocrisy.

Cards on the table. I can live with the idea of a snorting Dallaglio (while thinking that he may have been a fool), whereas I can hardly bear to inhabit the same planet as the tabloid journalists who outed him. Dallaglio has, after all, done no one any harm. He does not seek to destroy other people's lives for the entertainment of others or for his own personal gain. Well, not if the refereeing's any good.

But consider the News of the World. The entrapment of Dallaglio was one of several such triumphs for the News International paper. There was the former London's Burning star, John Alford, and - last week - the pukka Tom Parker Bowles. The snaring of wee William Straw, the Home Secretary's son, was a Sunday Mirror production. It's usually drugs, precisely because their use is so common. The very gap between the state of the law and social reality makes the "celeb in drugs scandal" story so easy to do. Unlike adultery these days, the drugs tale runs through several stages, inviting subsequent condemnation, loss of job and - possibly - prosecution.

According to Phil Hall, the News of the World's editor, these journalistic enterprises are public-spirited - akin to whistle-blowing. The Dallaglio sting was, he said: "A proper bona fide investigation... It's someone dealing in illegal drugs. It's our job to highlight the extent of it." In fact, of course, it's the cheapest kind of scoop.

Some treacherous acquaintance of a celebrity phones in and - for a fee - says that they've seen or heard X taking drugs, pawing night-club hostesses, or escorting illicit blondes back to their hotel room. Then a pretty young woman - desperate to make it in the world of newspapers - is assigned to getting X on his own. She makes him feel all pre-coital; they share something alcoholic; she slaps a secret tape across the proceedings and then begins to ask the right questions. The penis leads the brain, via the booze, into the honeytrap. They used to be experts at this in the old Lubyanka, on Dzerzhinsky Square.

If the defence of this journalism is that it is in the public interest, then I would like to challenge the influential newspaper editor Phil Hall to answer these questions. Has he ever taken illegal drugs of any kind? Has any close friend or member of his family? If so, where did they come from? Did he report them to the police? Have any of his journalists ever been convicted for possession or use? If so, were they summarily dismissed? And Phil, I know you'll get this article in your cuttings, so you can either reply (I promise I'll report what you say) and maintain some self- respect - or you can remain silent, and invite the obvious conclusion.

Immorality takes many forms. I wonder whether Louise Oswald (when first she contemplated journalism) thought that she would attain glory by wheedling a respected sportsman into a hotel room, lying to him, and inveigling him into admissions that were disastrous for his career and family. What did she feel, as he incriminated himself? Elation? Relief?

Shame, I hope. After all, whose face would you rather see in the bathroom mirror tomorrow morning: Lawrence Dallaglio's or Louise Oswald's? Whose behaviour is the more "immoral"? Who is the greater threat to a decent society? So don't sack the Dallaglios. That doesn't send the "right" message to youngsters; it just sends the wrong one to the amoral whores and bullies of the tabloid press. There are (as Otto proves) many worse things than drugs.