The Best and worst of times

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Not for the first time, the Cromwell Hospital in west London was besieged by reporters last week, as a famous patient recovered from major surgery. This time the bulletins were about George Best, the former footballer, who underwent a liver transplant on Tuesday. Much of the coverage was sympathetic, even though there was something odd about the sheer number of column inches devoted to a man who has not played professional football for many years. For the past couple of decades, Best has been famous only for the heavy drinking that almost killed him and led to last week's operation.

The general atmosphere of goodwill was punctured by the Daily Mail, which managed to find an expert who was willing to question the wisdom of giving Best a new liver. Robert Lefever, director of a private medical centre that treats addiction, was "not convinced that George necessarily merited such generous treatment" from the "hard-pressed NHS". If this seems in rather poor taste at a moment when Best was scarcely out of the operating theatre, it is of a piece with the Mail's wider approach to stories about addiction.

The very next day, the paper's main story was about the younger son of Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor. Alastair Irvine, 25, had been arrested in California, an event summed up in typical Mailese: 'Crack addict son of Lord Chancellor on gun and stalking charges over "obsession" with blonde'. Sex, drugs, guns and the son of one of the Prime Minister's closest advisers are an irresistible combination for the tabloids, even though Alastair Irvine is not in any sense a public figure.

Yet within 24 hours, the Mail had changed tack, printing a sympathetic open letter to the arrested man from Colin Clark. Colin who? I have never heard of him either, but the son of Lord Clark and brother of Alan, the late Conservative MP, wrote to Irvine about "your long, sad flirtation, first with cannabis and later with cocaine" and his own addiction to alcohol. "The truth is that I feel desperately sympathetic to you, for I know how self-destructive your downward spiral is," Clark volunteered, although I cannot imagine that the Mail is regular reading matter for guests of Orange County jail, where Irvine was being held because of alleged visa irregularities.

It is hard to envisage two more violently opposed attitudes to addiction in the same newspaper, in the same week, so why the switch? The simple answer is that Friday's breast-beating piece kept the story going, fulfilling the Mail's aim of embarrassing the Government's most senior law officer.

Lefever's attack on Best – "this hard-living, hard-drinking" celebrity – raised the question of ethics and asked whether there were not more deserving cases for NHS transplants. But ethics are the last thing on the mind of tabloid journalists when it comes to addiction, as we can see from the vendetta conducted by Piers Morgan, the editor of the Daily Mirror, against Naomi Campbell. The supermodel had lied about her drug problems – understandably, given the furore a public admission would have caused – and won a court case after Morgan published a photograph of her leaving a meeting of Narcotics Anonymous. The Mirror's response was spiteful and vindictive, as though famous people are under an absolute obligation to reveal their weaknesses to any journalist who inquires about them.

There could hardly be a more vivid illustration of the way in which exposing the addictions of celebrities has become a spectator sport for hacks – none of whom, naturally, has ever imbibed more than a half of shandy in the pub after work. Substance abuse is a very serious problem, for individuals and society as a whole, but it is rare to find the tabloids asking why some people are more vulnerable than others or which treatments are most likely to work. Nor do they display much concern for the unhappy individuals whose problems are paraded for our entertainment.

That is not surprising, given that the underlying impulse is schadenfreude, whether the articles are couched in sentimental tones – plucky George Best, struggling to overcome his demons – or savagely condemnatory. People with addictions are presented as crack fiends or hopeless drunks, shamed and patronised by turns, but they are always front-page news. And even in life-threatening situations, the spectacle is all that matters.

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