THE other morning, a man I know, a politically correct member of the chattering classes, a man so PC Harold Pinter would have dinner with him, bought a copy of (whisper it]) the Sun. Then, glancing furtively around his suburban train station, he slipped it inside his copy of . . . the Independent. For those who were on vacation some place last week where you couldn't get this news - the moon, say - this edition of the Sun provided the Fergie Collection, a special eight-page insert containing all those pictures of Fergie and her bare, uh, bust. My friend cannot recall doing such a thing since he was 11 and hid a tome entitled Sexual Anomalies and Perversions inside a brown-paper wrapper marked HOLY BIBLE.

Well, as Michael Murphy says to Woody Allen in Manhattan: gossip is the new pornography.

It was a week of gossip on an intercontinental ballistic scale (yum]). In America, the Woody Allen story played big. It made the cover of Time, Newsweek and People. Tri-Star announced plans to release Allen's new movie, Husbands and Wives, early and big - at 800 cinemas. Reporters in New York hung from lamp-posts as Allen's custody battle with Mia Farrow went to court, and if the high-minded feigned interest in the budget deficit or Somalia, they were lying. On both sides of the Atlantic, the salacious details of Woody and Mia and Fergie and Di were matched only by the sound of pretentious pieties plopping from the mouths of the portentous. Of the Woody Allen case, Time noted: 'The heart is a dark forest.'

The real subject, of course, is not sex and celebrity; the subject is gossip. Gossip doesn't give you Aids. It doesn't want to live in your neighbourhood. It is lots of fun and very cheap. Best of all, those who commit the stuff of major gossip - which always includes sex and celebrity - stand in as our monsters. In the New York Times, writing about Woody Allen and the accusations of child abuse and his affair with Mia Farrow's 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi, James Kincaid, a professor of English in California, says we have 'a fierce and unappeasable appetite for stories of children under sexual siege'. The result of the way we deal with a story such as Allen's is 'sanctimony-laced porn, allowing us to distance and deny the eros while glutting on it. Woody Allen is forced into the monster part,' he adds.

He's right. And what he says could serve for Fergie, too. After all, what bugs a lot of people about the duchess is that while she was allegedly engaging in topless foot sex by that pool, her children were present.

Alas, poor Fergie, she took her top off. I mean, it's not as if the royals haven't been at it since Anne Boleyn had a head. OK, what about the taxpayer's money? And isn't she vulgar? And wasn't she stupid? Waxing righteous on these themes, many people, self-professed republicans even (that's with a small r), are waiting to get through on the other phone to the Di- line ('Hello, Squidgy]'). The level of pious prurience could make you puke.

Fergie and Woody do service as our pet gargoyles - the bitch at the palace, the nasty boy-next-door. We watch them act out our most lurid fantasies, and feel superior. Tsk, tsk. Take away her duchy] Off with his head]]

In a single week, between them, Woody and Mia and Fergie and Di (I sometimes wonder if the last two operate in tandem, like girlfriends who get their periods together), managed to commit every tasty sin. There was enough sin to satisfy both Mary Whitehouse and Marilyn Quayle (Have you noticed, by way, how much Marilyn looks like Lily Tomlin in drag) that family values are in dire straits. The Republicans (with a big R) have already been busy branding the Democrats as the Party of Woody Allen. Allen has become mighty useful to the religious right in America: having lost the commies as common enemy, now they've got Woody.

If in London people were perusing the Sun in secret, in New York you could not rent a Woody Allen video this week because all over town people were crouched in front of their television sets looking for clues. Is Mia actually a wackoid woman scorned, the Mama Bear who cried 'Who's been sleeping in my bed?', only to discover it wasn't Goldilocks, but her adopted daughter? Would Woody really abuse his kids? At best, many asserted, he had committed a kind of metaphorical incest with Soon-Yi. Some fans despised Woody for his mushy public statement about Soon-Yi because it lacked both the irony and the Gershwin score of a Woody Allen script.

How could he do this to us? Woody was our boy; he described our urban lives with live-in detail. At one of his films once a friend whispered: 'I think he's been living at my house.' Well, you wouldn't want a guy a like this at your house now, would you?

Once, we liked our heroes and artists mad, bad and dangerous to know, but that was when public gossip was a distant rumour, a titbit in a tabloid about the rich and famous who were different from us, before gossip became big business, before Fergie bared all at the top of the Nine O'Clock News and Woody's peccadilloes made the cover of Time. With everything revealed, with stars and royals reinvented as the folks next door, you have to up the stakes: set up your subjects so you can feel that delectable frisson when they fall, recast them as monsters if they turn out to be merely human.

In Manhattan, Woody Allen says: 'My second ex-wife is writing this book. She's gonna give all those details about my little quirks and idiosyncrasies and mannerisms. Not that I have anything to hide. But there are a few disgusting little moments that I regret.' Don't we all]