For criminals the wages of sin are counted in tabloid dollars: Out of America

WASHINGTON - Would you undergo a flogging for a guaranteed pounds 333,000? Or does somewhere over pounds 2m for an unjustified and admittedly very nasty beating by the Los Angeles police sound a better deal - especially if you are a convicted armed robber out on parole, with pretty dim prospects of profitable and legal employment thereafter? Maybe not. But events in the last few days have had me wondering.

'After Caning, a Silver Lining,' ran the headline in USA-Today on Friday, 24 hours after the American teenager Michael Fay had experienced firsthand how Singapore deals with vandalism cases. The silver lining in question was explained by a publicist, David Schmidt. 'Time is of the essence in getting top dollar,' Mr Schmidt explained, but 'I can guarantee the exclusive pictures of his buttocks are worth at least one-half million dollars, maybe more.' Book and film rights, he added, could push that figure into the millions.

A few days earlier Rodney King had been awarded dollars 3.8m ( pounds 2.5m) in damages from the City of Los Angeles to compensate for his ordeal of 3 March 1991, with the prospect of more to come from pending lawsuits against the six police officers directly involved in his beating. Mr King, of course, was a victim, but one of the officers who took part is already writing a book. And Michael Fay's case, and sundry others like it, send a common message: getting involved with the law, on the wrong side as well as the right, can be extremely rewarding - just as long as you have a sufficiently bizarre, lurid or titillating tale to tell.

Maybe the culprit is a general decline in standards, reflected in the taste of a population willing to pay dollars 20,000 apiece for paintings by John Wayne Gacy, the Chicago serial killer finally executed yesterday for murdering 33 boys and young men in the 1970s. In truth though, it's simple economics - a bidding war between supermarket magazines, ever-multiplying tabloid TV shows and the rest for a limited supply of stories to fill. Chasing criminals with cheque books is nothing new; back in 1975, CBS paid Gordon Liddy, the convicted Watergate burglar, dollars 15,000 for his reminiscences. But 1994 threatens to break all records for the wages of sin, with a celebrity gallery ranging from heinous serial killers to John and Lorena Bobbitt.

In his rosy assessment of Michael Fay's earning potential, Mr Schmidt should know what he's talking about. Among his clients is Jeff Gillooly, Tonya Harding's ex, whose role in the criminal attack on Nancy Kerrigan is evidently worth a good deal of money. But Gillooly's disgrace is nothing to that of Harding - and neither presumably are his rewards. True, her skating career is over, and she had to pay a fine of dollars 150,000. In recompense, however, she is already said to have earned dollars 500,000 on the tabloid circuit, and stands to make as much again from a made-for-TV film project. In terms of cold cash, an Olympic ice-dance gold medal wouldn't have compared.

Or take the Bobbitt couple, the immediate predecessors of Harding/Kerrigan in the tabloid pantheon. Although John Bobbitt did turn down an opportunity to display his world-famous wound on a pay-per-view New Year TV special, the show none the less raised dollars 260,000. His publicity agent organised a European tour, while any risk the Bobbitt name might fade from the public consciousness has been conveniently removed by his arrest at the weekend in Las Vegas, for allegedly beating his fiancee.

Lorena Bobbitt's financial arrangements have been a better-kept secret. But she need never work another day as a dollars 24,000 a year manicurist in northern Virginia. As for Joey Buttafuoco, paramour of the underage 'Long Island Lolita' Amy Fisher (herself the object of at least three TV films), he left prison a couple of months ago charging dollars 100,000 an interview.

And not only protagonists but their relatives are churned into the publicity mix. Michael Fay's mother, Randy Chan, says she may write a book about her son's punishment, 'as a kind of therapy'. Far more macabre was the recent book tour of Lionel Dahmer to promote A Father's Story, his attempt to explain how his son Geoffrey turned into a necrophiliac and cannibal who murdered at least 17 people. Will it sell? Probably yes. America's fascination with serial killers has never been greater. A supposedly serious new TV magazine show chose this year to devote its launch edition to an interview with Charles Manson, helping his creeping metamorphosis into cult hero.

Geoffrey Dahmer may be serving a dozen consecutive life sentences, but that hasn't stopped admirers sending thousands of dollars to his prison. At least, though, he won't be able to play himself in a tabloid television show.

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