The Best and worst of times

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Dublin

£13676.46 - £16411.61 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree Trainee Recruitment Cons...

Ashdown Group: Marketing or Business Graduate Opportunity - Norwich - £22,000

£18000 - £22000 per annum + training: Ashdown Group: Business and Marketing Gr...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Are you great at building rela...

Ashdown Group: Database Analyst - Birmingham - £22,000 plus benefits

£20000 - £22000 per annum + excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Application Sup...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour leader Ed Miliband unveils Labour's pledges carved into a stone plinth in Hastings  

Election 2015: Smash the two-party system! Smash the voting system!

Armando Iannucci
Tactical voting is a necessary evil of the current first-past-the-post system, where voters vote against what they do not want rather than in favour of what they do  

Election 2015: Voting tactically has become more fraught in new political order

Michael Ashcroft
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power