Peter Cole: Welcome to the Rod, Rachel and Alicia show. But who's it aimed at?

How the press focused on someone who is a celebrity only to the self-styled media elite
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The Independent Online

The current media obsession with celebrity is not the preserve of the tabloids but reaches into upmarket newspapers, radio and television as well, not to mention the magazines that exist only for the celebrities - or is it the other way round? From Heat to Hello!, from too many cooks to too many gardeners and too many make-overers of houses and humans, celebs sometimes seem not so much prominent as dominant in today's media.

There are A-lists and B-lists and an overcrowded Z-list. Piers Morgan, one-time editor of the Daily Mirror, makes television programmes where he interviews celebrities about what it's like to be a celebrity and how they are treated by the tabloids. There is a mutual dependence that both sides recognise, even when one side purports to resent the intrusion and the other the complaints from a person who would not exist without the publicity.

It is an industry - more like a world - where, when it's all going smoothly, everyone wins, including the hangers-on, the publicists, the paparazzi, the agents, the publishers, the shareholders ... the list goes on. It's hardly journalism, but, say some, it's harmless. Victoria Beckham would probably disagree, although she has acquired a career, a husband and a fortune by developing and exploiting celebrity.

And then there is Rod Liddle. His marriage has recently come apart; nothing very unusual about that. He has taken up with a much younger woman; nothing all that unusual about that. His wife and mother of his young children is upset and angry; understandable enough. Sad to say, all the above is everyday occurrence in today's Britain. So why has Rod's mid-life crisis resulted in interviews in The Daily Telegraph, double-page spreads in the Daily Mail (two of them), a page in the Evening Standard, and of course Liddle's own column in The Times yesterday?

And who, anyway, is Rod Liddle? None of the people who take an interest in celebrity, who buy the mags and watch the programmes, have heard of him. Rod is that variation on the celebrity theme, a celebrity to those who think they matter, the self-styled media élite who mutually sustain each other and their status by going to the same parties, talking about each other, talking each other up. And they have that great advantage over ordinary people, indeed over ordinary celebrities, in that most of them have outlets - papers they can write in, programmes they can take part in.

So Rod Liddle is known to people who think they matter. He is tremendously clever, has a Sixties look, lives hard, and is a bit of a charmer. Like most tremendously clever people of his generation, he went into the BBC, and after a while found himself editing the Today programme. He hired Andrew Gilligan as the programme's own investigative reporter. He wrote newspaper columns, but not in the bland, safe manner of, say, Andrew Marr. This worried the BBC even before Hutton. After a particularly controversial article about the countryside demonstration they fired him.

This made him more famous than working for the BBC, so columns (Guardian, Times) came his way, he discussed things on radio and TV, wrote about restaurants for The Standard, and crucially, in terms of his unknown celeb status, was embraced by The Spectator set (world president Boris Johnson, its editor). Crucial, because the receptionist there was Alicia Monckton, the other woman in the Liddle soap opera. Rod is 44, Alicia is 23. It all ties up. You work for the Spectator. You pass the receptionist on the way into the office. You're writing a restaurant column ... empty seat ... take her along. Along the way, just six months ago, Rod has married his partner of 11 years, the mother of his two children. She is Rachel Royce, 42, TV presenter and writer.

All that is missing from the set for this soap is a location, but there is a village in Wiltshire called Heytesbury and a pub called the Red Lion. There is the marital home where Rachel lives with sons Tyler and Wilder, where Rod lived. He is now across the village. Key dramatic scenes taker place in the Red Lion, where Rod seems to go to drink and Rachel goes to shout at him. All standard soap, moved upmarket.

Just as the red-top tabloids may battle it out - with one paper having a line to Rebecca Loos, another to Victoria Beckham - so we have Liddle in the Telegraph camp (did the Barclay brothers know this was part of the deal when they bought the paper?) and Royce with the Mail. The Standard, owned by the Mail group, while taking a more detached line, refers to "the wife, the lover and the rat".

This is more Aga saga than kiss-and-tell, more Trollope than trollops. It has the inevitable commercial dimension, in that Rod has just published a book (it deals with men, relationships, mid-life). He has useful contacts, and a story. Rachel knows he's talking, and is not going to let him have the only word. And so this rather conventional story is played out under the spotlight.

Why? The media élite gossip as they always have. The difference today is that they assume they are interesting and believe the rest of the world will be interested. Once we had stars, distant from those who wrote awestruck about them. Today we have celebs, some of whom are stars, many of whom are ... who? But don't tell me there is any great difference between The Sun writing about Jordan and her bloke from the jungle, or the Telegraph writing about Rod and Rachel and Alicia, apart from Alicia being more upmarket and Jordan more famous.

¿ I know the BBC has had a lot on its mind. I know it feels it has to defend itself and justify its very existence. But is a word mountain necessarily the answer? I have been assembling all the material, and of course reading some of it, but storage is becoming a problem. In the past few weeks, say post-Hutton, we have had the annual report (147 pages), the Neil report (27 pages), the Graf report (98 pages) the response to the consultation with the Department of Culture Media and Sport (111 pages), Building Public Value (113 pages) and probably other things I have missed. I wonder who has read all these and I worry about the BBC. How can we convince it that many more people love it than it thinks? And that they don't need 1,000 pages to convince them.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield