Posh, Becks, Melanie and the right to know

Should ready access to celebrities' secrets really be enshrined as a basic democratic freedom?
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Victoria Beckham would probably not have heard of Melanie Phillips. Ms Phillips's knowledge of Real Madrid, or indeed the Spice Girls, would be no more than Mrs Beckham's familiarity with changes in education policy since the 1960s or the roadmap to peace in the Middle East. Ms Phillips, severe of look and austere of disposition, columnist of the Daily Mail, would probably ban Footballers' Wives from our television screens and blame David Beckham for child obesity through his sponsorship of Pepsi.

Victoria Beckham would probably not have heard of Melanie Phillips. Ms Phillips's knowledge of Real Madrid, or indeed the Spice Girls, would be no more than Mrs Beckham's familiarity with changes in education policy since the 1960s or the roadmap to peace in the Middle East. Ms Phillips, severe of look and austere of disposition, columnist of the Daily Mail, would probably ban Footballers' Wives from our television screens and blame David Beckham for child obesity through his sponsorship of Pepsi.

As a regular reader of Ms Phillips' column bemoaning the flight from traditional values and morality (as defined by the Daily Mail), and a follower of the twists and turns of the Beckhams' goals and marriage, I was surprised to see the two colliding in the Mail last Monday. Ms Phillips is one for the high ground, not the football ground. But she is interested in legal matters, so perhaps this would explain her decision to devote her column to the Beckhams. The previous day they had unsuccessfully sought a High Court order to prevent publication of the revelations of their former nanny.

The News of the World, so recently crowned Newspaper of the Year, continued its tradition of opening its chequebook and securing the big stories by paying £125,000 to Abbie Gibson, the nanny, for the secrets of the Beckham home life. The Beckhams did not want us to hear about the alleged rows, implants, insecurities, Loos living, sex and text, and, worst of all, denial that they even had a nanny, so they went to a High Court judge on the night before publication. The judge decided that despite the fact that she had signed a confidentiality agreement with the Beckhams, the nanny's story could be told.

Ms Phillips agreed. "The story of Brand Beckham is surely a morality tale for our times, and it is in the public interest for it to be made known," she wrote in her column.

The Beckhams can still sue the NoW, and are, as ever, consulting their lawyers, possibly even each other. There was another court hearing on Friday involving the Beckhams and Ms Gibson, but not the NoW. A stand-off was agreed in which various undertakings were made by Ms Gibson that she would not say any more, or spend her fee, for the present. But what she has already said, and has been published, can be repeated.

As in all these cases - and how well we remember Rebecca Loos and her Beckham claims last year - there are levels of humbug and levels of seriousness. The humbug is that it is the public interest that such kiss and tell - or in this case look after the children and tell - stories are published, that they are important and have serious consequences for the rest of us. Nobody, including the newspaper and the judge, believes the NoW is paying the nanny for the story other than to sell papers by appealing to the public appetite for celebrity gossip, preferably sexual.

The serious end of the debate is the danger of putting the law at the disposal of the Beckhams (and others) to allow them to control and possibly distort the carefully created public image that earns them so much. The celebrities play the game; the publicists play; the media play. It is seldom edifying; it is not always interesting; it is certainly no place for the law.

The serious end of the debate is about press freedom - that there must be overwhelming reasons to prevent publication rather than any need to justify it, because the consequences, particularly political, of extending legal powers over the media are fraught with danger.

Nobody could keep a straight face and argue that our basic democratic rights and freedoms depend on the right to know what the Beckham nanny heard in the kitchen; but in a curious way they do. It is the "thin end of the wedge" argument. Publication last week of pictures of Prince Harry roaring around the Botswana safari park with his girlfriend, Chelsy, also caused rage in some quarters about paparazzi intrusion. We can all have a little sympathy for the couple. But they don't have a bad life, and think of the potential consequences of banning pictures of public figures (politicians, say?) having a good time. At whose expense? In Nazi uniform? We are entitled to know.

The Beckhams built an image on all that Melanie Phillips champions in the Mail. Family life. Lovely, well cared-for children. Fidelity. Stability. Quality education and healthcare, and the freedom to pay for it. Community. Respect. David and Victoria: a rather old-fashioned couple, really. Ms Phillips and the Mail approve of that. More importantly for the Beckhams, so do the sponsors, to the tune of more than £20m a year. They can't afford to let the image slip. They can't afford to upset Ms Phillips. They can afford expensive lawyers.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield

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