And they call it a funny old game

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The Independent Online

It's just a game, isn't it? Football, that is, and the antics players get up to off as well as on the pitch. Except that last week it all turned nasty, when a 17-year-old girl accused Premiership footballers of gang-raping her. She said she had consensual sex with one man but was then attacked by up to seven others who burst into a room at the Grosvenor House hotel in London. Details appeared first in The Sun, which boasted that it had the victim's exclusive story. Other tabloids piled in, with the Daily Express reporting more details from "a source close to the family".

On Friday, Aston Villa issued a denial that any of its players were involved, holding out the prospect of the team eventually being identified by a process of elimination, while The Sun reported that the man who had consensual sex with the girl is a Chelsea player. The paper's columnist Richard Littlejohn confessed he had had to force himself to plough through the harrowing details of the alleged attacks. "Who thinks rape is good box office?" stormed the accompanying headline ­ not, sadly, an attack on his editor, Rebekah Wade, but on Nicole Kidman's new movie, Dogville.

If anyone is convicted of this awful crime, Littlejohn thundered, society will expect exemplary sentences. How that outcome has been assisted by his paper's behaviour over the past week is hard to fathom, as both the police and the Attorney General warned that the tabloid feeding frenzy could prejudice any trial. Not a single lesson has been learnt from the John Leslie affair, which ended with all charges against the TV presenter being dropped after a series of unidentified women made sensational allegations to tabloid journalists.

Just to make things worse, the latest accusations come at a time when there has been a catastrophic loss of confidence in the capacity of the judicial system to protect women from sexual violence. The conviction rate in rape cases reported to the police has fallen to an all-time low and these particular allegations, involving a schoolgirl and men who may be household names, call for delicate handling. Yet we have had a week of lurid headlines, stimulating a flurry of activity on the internet, where the players were rapidly identified. By the time their lawyers began to take action against offending sites, some of which exist to reveal information legally too risky to appear in newspapers, the damage had been done.

According to Mark Stephens, a solicitor who has represented celebrity clients, new laws are needed to prevent people being named on the internet before police action is taken. But that is only one aspect of the problem, in an atmosphere where members of the public are actively encouraged to "grass" on famous people to the tabloids, which print telephone numbers for readers who wish to approach them with tip-offs. It is Orwell's Big Brother in a new form, a culture of spying in which ordinary people are invited to act on their worst instincts.

Sex, which used to be a private act involving two individuals, has moved into the public arena to an unprecedented degree. Neither the tabloids nor internet sites such as the notorious Popbitch make a distinction between accounts of consensual sex ­ frequently involving a breach of confidence but without dire legal consequences ­ and claims of sexual violence. Both are served up in as much salacious detail as possible, as entertainment.

Years ago, few details of an alleged rape appeared in the media until the case came to trial, by which time they would have undergone forensic scrutiny by lawyers. Last week there was a delay of only two days between the girl reporting her claims to the police and their appearance in The Sun. In this instance she seems to have collaborated with the paper, but other alleged victims may think twice about going to the police for fear of finding hacks camped on their doorsteps.

For the tabloids it is all a game. Nothing matters but the next headline, edging ever closer to revealing the men's identities. But the urge to score over rival papers ­ and there is a lubricious excitement about this constant search for sleazy exclusives ­ obscures the damage that is being done to the judicial system by unpardonably low standards of journalism.

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