One definition of news is anything that surprises. In that respect, the photograph last week of Antonia de Sancha having a beer and cigarette on a London pavement was newsworthy. Most people had not seen de Sancha since the early 1990s, when, with smouldering allure, she co-starred with David Mellor in a very public scandale. Now here she was, sucking on a ciggie in a faux-furcoat. I say, were those black suede boots knee-length?
The photograph appeared first in the Daily Mail which, with perhaps uncharacteristic lack of generosity, hinted that almond-eyed Antonia had gone to seed. I thought she looked fine – fun, too, which was how I remembered her from a supper in New York in 1996. She was stepping out with a friend of mine at the time.
Last week's photograph of her was not newsworthy in the sense of being linked to current affairs, to what one might call "serious" news. And yet the image, almost artistic with its blues and smoky greys and those ringlets of stray raven hair, surprised us. Many will have thought, "Antonia de Sancha, well, well."
A kerfuffle ensued. Journalism professor Roy Greenslade, who once worked at the murkier end of Fleet Street but now delivers quasi-papal homilies on media standards, wrote in The Guardian that it was "chauvinistic" and "disgraceful" to run the photograph. The Guardian, mind you, made sure that it reproduced the picture.
The Daily Telegraph was next. It did not use the Notting Hill fag shot (perhaps not wishing to pay the fee) but reproduced an engaging portrait of de Sancha from the time of the Mellor affair. The paper assigned a couple of gumshoes and one of them bagged a few words from her. Naturally, the Telegraph distanced itself from the alleged brutishness of the Mail – yet it still ran several jaunty paragraphs.
Far from being cross about her re-emergence into the news, Antonia de Sancha has turned out to be sweetly, wryly amused. She posed for new, attractive pictures in yesterday's Mail and gave the paper a long interview. But was it right for the snapshot to have been taken in the first place? Is a London pavement a private place? Pace Professor Greenslade, is it sexist to gawp at a person who was once famous?
In these days of the Leveson terrors, we journalists must certainly be careful about snoopery. But if you encountered a one-time political mistress, would you not have a discreet stare? Would you not be quietly gripped? To deny widespread interest in once-prominent characters is to misunderstand human nature. To suppress publication of such images would be dishonest and actually rather miserable (which, by the way, dear old Roy Greenslade is not). The stern Cromwellians of the Hacked Off pressure group may not like it, but people are interested in people. That is why diary columns, Hello! and so forth endure.
Most "news" is about a see-saw in fortunes, be it up, down, or, whoaa, off the see-saw altogether. Such is the drama of life. If once-forbidden love and high-boned beauty are thrown into a mix seasoned with cigarette smoke, newspaper readers will be lured.
Today's Britain is not so different from the days of Restoration comedy. In the 17th century, society was small enough for the low to view the high as they went about their daily rituals. The modern media connects 21st-century Britain to the rakes and cuckolds, the libertines and bodiced lovelies, of our age. Thus are our morals moulded. When those characters prove as gracious and good-humoured as Antonia de Sancha, we would be the poorer for not knowing them.
Quentin Letts writes for the 'Daily Mail'Reuse content