Editor-At-Large: The demonising of Madonna

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The Independent Online

Shock, horror revelations this Sunday. Although it would be tempting to think of the Material Girl as a new version of rambler-hating Nicholas van Hoogstraten, so loathed by readers of this newspaper, sadly this is not the case. You may have to sit down and take a deep breath, before you read any further, perhaps even try

a bit of that yoga relaxation malarkey Madge and Gwyneth find so helpful, but the true story about Madonna and our right to roam is worth telling. Only last week the press reported that there would be a public inquiry to resolve a "long-running dispute" about public access to her 1,134-acre Ashcombe House estate in Wiltshire. Once again we were told that Madonna had written to Tony Blair to express her concern over the new legislation giving greater access to walk on uncultivated moor and downland, fearing it would mean that she would be invaded by the great unwashed.

Fact: Madonna has never written to our leader on this or on any other matter. She did issue a statement to that effect but nobody bothered to print it. We may not like her music; we may find her acting skills lamentable, but when it comes to political savvy, this woman is right up there in the first division. In spite of a mouthy mother-in-law, Shireen Ritchie, who is chairman of the Kensington and Chelsea Conservative Association, she has never expressed any political preferences either. She's far too canny for that.

In this development, Madonna and her husband, Guy Ritchie, are merely exercising their rights as landowners to dispute the classification of part of their land as downland, which would enable people to walk freely over it. She's not alone - 47 other people in her area are disputing their land's status (classified as Region 3, South Central England, in the new mapping process), but sadly for her, she is the most high profile. Other members of the aristocracy hide behind their land agents' names when making their objections.

Under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which came into effect in January 2001, a mapping exercise was set up for the whole country. It was divided into regions. In each area draft maps are being drawn up proposing which land will be classified as available for walking on as "common ground". There follows a three-month consultation period with members of the public and landowners, after which new provisional maps are drawn up.

Some land will inevitably be taken out of the equation. Now Madonna and Guy are fighting, via a public inquiry, for some parts of their estate to be removed from the downland (common ground) category. They may lose simply because the inspector agrees that the land is correctly classified, rather than sympathising with their other arguments which invoke the European Convention of Human Rights (invasion of privacy and the right to protect their property), because these issues can be resolved only by a court sitting in Strasbourg.

But, most importantly, Madonna has never objected to people walking on any of the six existing footpaths on her land, and even if she were to win her case, we could all walk on the Wessex Ridgeway right through her land, and there is nothing to stop us. But the demonising of Madonna knows no bounds. In Q magazine last May she said, "We did think, oh, there's a path, people are going to be bothering us all the time. But no one did. I have nothing bad to say about the ramblers." And that has been her position ever since. She repeated all this in another press statement last week, but no one bothered to print it.

She has never had a footpath diverted (unlike Labour landowner Lord Puttnam) and thoroughly enjoys life in Wiltshire. According to Alison Boshoff, who claims to be a journalist, writing in the Daily Mail, Madonna calls ramblers "Satan's children". Ms Boshoff alleged that Madonna's (non-existent) letter to the PM was written because she feared that the new legislation was a "stalker's charter". Having been the subject of a hatchet job by Ms Boshoff I can tell you where my sympathies lie on this occasion. Even Rod Liddle, writing in The Guardian, poured buckets of vitriol over the singer, claiming that "she had whined about ordinary people having the right to roam" and proposed a mass trespass "to force this dreadful woman to leave the country for good".

Finally, it is in the interests of other landowners and rich estate agents to cast Madonna as anti-rambler. They fought the Government unsuccessfully for compensation for allowing greater public access to land. They are worried that as a result of the new laws, countryside which is designated common land will decline in value. But they hide behind her high public profile. She does not have that luxury. It is a seductive image, Madge sitting in her chintzy drawing-room in Ashcombe, snarling through the windows at cheery walkers crossing her fields, going mad with the sheer boredom of being in wet and soggy Britain when she could be in glorious Los Angeles behind a security fence, having fun. But it's just not true.

Racists in paradise

I write this column from Upper Nidderdale, North Yorkshire, where the drought of recent months has been forgotten as it rains continuously for 24 hours. The front-page news in our local paper last week that the British National Party proposes to fight three seats in the Harrogate council elections is deeply depressing. I have always thought of my valley as paradise, unspoilt by the sleazy politics of the far right. Now the BNP has opened an office just a 45-minute drive away and plans to "tell the truth about local issues". We have extremely low unemployment and a wonderful quality of life. Sure, the rise in council tax is a cause for complaint. And rural transport leaves a lot to be desired. But I cannot believe the politics of racial hatred have any place here in rural Yorkshire, when top of our agenda should be encouraging more people to come and live here, not fewer.

One local rural initiative swiftly nipped in the bud last week was the closing of Britain's smallest brothel, which has been operating from a caravan parked in a lay-by off the A1 near Thirsk. It was operated by John Middleton, who owned a sex shop called Pleasure Zone with adjacent brothel entitled Fantasy Ranch in the unlikely location of downtown Darlington. Mr Middleton appeared in court last week pleading guilty to living off immoral earnings. It gives the term "comfort break" a whole new meaning. But seriously, the sooner licensed brothels operate in motorway service station areas the better. It certainly would get the kerb crawlers out of residential neighbourhoods and city centres.