Why gossiping glossies are rot off the press

Revelations about pop stars and actors are everywhere. But can you believe any of them?

It must have been with a sense of disappointment, not to say shock, that readers of this week's edition of New! magazine encountered the admission on page three that "there are often elements of people's private lives we just don't know about".

Say it's not so! Surely, with the all-seeing eyes of "A. Pal", the eavesdropping talents of "R. Source" and the mind-reading techniques of body-language experts, nothing remains secret from the celebrity press?

It's a sector of the media which, in my view, is insufficiently maligned. Shamelessly feeding the market in paparazzi photography, the celeb mags tolerate journalistic standards which would shame the red-top tabloids, the skirts of which they hide behind when the media is being censured for the threat it poses to personal privacy.

The latest Closer boasts cover-line quotes from Charlotte Church, Gavin Henson, Coleen Rooney and Abbey Clancy. Yet a flick through the pages reveals that not one of them has given an interview. Ms Church is nonetheless quoted word-for-word at length via "pals" who presumably were equipped with a digital recorder or taking a meticulous shorthand note when the singer confided in them.

This week's Look boasts a "Shock Confession" from Cheryl Cole. She wants a baby. "I am ready now. I'm a woman not a girl," runs a pull quote. The article begins by acknowledging that Ms Cole and the dancer Derek Hough "haven't officially announced that they're an item" but goes on to quote an "insider" saying that the singer has already chosen a baby name. "She would love a little girl and she loves the names Martha and Isabelle." There is, it turns out, no interview with Ms Cole.

Meanwhile the rival weekly Heat has a rather different take on the story. "The truth" about Cheryl and Derek, it claims, is "that they were in fact never romantically involved". This conclusion is supported by body-language expert Judi James, who examines a pap shot of the pair in the street and opines that "not only has Cheryl allowed an unfeasible spatial gap to occur here, she's even employing that killer bag as an airbag to enforce the barrier between them."

I'd say the celebrity magazine sector is dragging down journalism. These "pals" with their extraordinary sensory powers encourage the public expectation that no conversation, no matter how personal, is private. Clive Goodman, the royal editor of the News of the World, took that culture to its illegal extreme and served four months in jail for hacking into the voicemails of his targets.

The celeb magazines benefit from being seen as fluffy, less nasty than the tabloids. Yet the coverage is often spiteful. New! described Victoria Beckham as "looking knackered" with "greasy" hair as she launched her collection at New York Fashion Week. Closer said Ms Beckham looked "gaunt, rundown and ghostly pale".

The suffocating levels of attention take their toll, as the magazines admit. Heat reports that Mischa Barton has parted company with her boyfriend because "he was expecting they'd get some attention, but he never imagined it would be as bad as it was." In one of the few on-the-record interviews, actress Jaime Winstone tells Look of her split with Alfie Allen: "It's not healthy to have all that attention on a relationship."

Of course some "pals" are close to home, near neighbours or distant relatives. Or it's the celebrity's own agent, trying to do damage limitation by working with a journalist who is writing around a pap picture. Sometimes the source is the D-lister invited to a party in return for generating publicity by dishing gossip on more famous guests.

A New! story this week on the love life of Big Brother star Chantelle Houghton seemed a convenient publicity coup for lingerie store La Senza, where she shopped for frillies in an effort to win back her ex, Samuel Preston. But the romance is off, according to Preston's Twitter account: "I think my friend A. Source has been getting the wrong end of the stick once again."

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