Fame, lies and the virtue of notoriety

If such people are happy to see horrible behaviour in print, why should they balk at being called a liar as well?
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The Independent Online

A little modern morality this morning, courtesy of the libel lawyers. If, like me, you greatly enjoy Heat, the scurrilous celebrity magazine, you may have wondered at what point they would need to publish a retraction or apology.

A little modern morality this morning, courtesy of the libel lawyers. If, like me, you greatly enjoy Heat, the scurrilous celebrity magazine, you may have wondered at what point they would need to publish a retraction or apology.

In this week's issue, for instance, it confidently claims that Liz Hurley likes dressing up as a schoolgirl before having sex, that Ashton Kutcher has to take Viagra before going to bed with Demi Moore and, on the occasion of Kate Moss acquiring a new boyfriend, that she "doesn't stick around for very long". It goes on: Britney Spears emptying ashtrays over her balcony; Billie looks like a "bag-lady"; Liam Gallagher's a "big girl's blouse"; and "Kate Beckinsale's toes are like tentacles". Poor girl.

There must be something which would make Heat apologise, you always felt, and this week, here it is, on page 20, an apology drafted - you can tell by the illiterate misplaced comma in the second sentence - by their learned friends.

"In Heat on 2-8 November 2002, we published an interview with Bryan McFadden. In that interview, both Mr McFadden and ourselves implicitly accused Ms Amy Barker of lying, when she previously claimed in an article published in the Sunday People to have had a sexual encounter with Bryan on the occasion of his stag night three years ago. We and Mr McFadden accept that a sexual encounter did take place on this occasion and it was not our intention to accuse Ms Barker of lying. We are pleased to have been able to set the record straight in this regard."

For your information, Mr McFadden is, or perhaps was, a member of a pop group, whose name now escapes me, and is married to a cheery blonde who is much loved by the nation for reasons I forget, and whose name, anyway, I don't think I ever knew. Ms Barker, I think we can confidently say, bases her claim on public attention on the facts contained in this legal apology.

This must surely be one of the oddest apologies ever printed. Not that the explanation itself seems unlikely, because I'm sure that it is perfectly correct in what it says, and the magazine was wrong to suggest that the story had been a lie. No, there is no doubt that Ms Barker did indeed have a sexual encounter with Mr McFadden shortly before his marriage, and told the truth about it afterwards.

The oddity, however, lies in the motivation behind the apology, and the spirit in which Ms Barker has sought a retraction from the magazine. Maintaining that she cheerfully had some sort of sex with a man in circumstances which, one might think, were not exactly an occasion for pride, she is indignant, on the other hand, at the suggestion that she might be a liar.

I don't know how far she would go in this regard: what would happen if, say, I met her and remarked in print that she seemed extremely nice, and I found it hard to believe that she could possibly have had sexual relations with a man just before his marriage?

Would that be libellous? Perhaps, so let's be clear and say that she is such a girl, but at least when she tells her story, she would never stoop to fibbing. Let us remind ourselves, at this point, that the libel laws are there to protect reputations, and to act against imputations which lower people in the minds of right-thinking citizens.

The whole thing shines a curious light on modern morality, and it is very easy to think of situations where the libel laws might very well be brought into play in very counter-intuitive ways, to protect not so much a reputation as a notoriety.

Imagine, for instance, their relevance to the booming memoir industry. Memoirs have been growing more and more sensational recently, and expose shocking behaviour not just in the author's circle of acquaintances, but very often in the author himself.

I've certainly read a few memoirs recently which seemed to me faintly ludicrous, and a little too willing to relish past excesses. When Ernest Hemingway was alive, he once had a review in which the reviewer jocularly commented that the author was almost certainly a respectable old lady living in a nice country village. If one followed that lead now, and wrote that a memoir of alcoholic abuse, say, showed all the signs of being written by a clean-living teetotal graduate of a creative-writing school, the writs would be landing on your desk within hours.

There are writers and celebrities who have built a career by telling interviewers about their problems with drink and drugs, or deplorably promiscuous behaviour, sometimes, I have to say, somewhat implausibly. But no-one in their right mind would say bluntly that they didn't believe it. It would be clearly actionable.

Of course, in some ways, morality moves on, and that question of what lowers you in the eyes of right-minded people is not the same as it was. Once, it would have been libellous to suggest that an actor was homosexual; these days, I hope, it is not libellous even if untrue, just as it would not be libellous to say, incorrectly, that someone was Jewish.

But this apology to Ms Barker, which could certainly be replicated in similar circumstances, is a slightly different kettle of fish. What it demonstrates, surely, is that to modern morality, celebrity is a kind of absolute virtue, and not to be distinguished from notoriety or, conceivably, even infamy. To question the basis of that celebrity, even if the net result is to raise the subject in general, conventional moral approbation, is to damage that very contemporary virtue, fame.

If you suggested that a memoirist was an admirable, hardworking, honest person quite unlike the lying, cheating, drunken scum set out in his book, you may be damaging his claim to celebrity. And that is a virtue we can all agree to admire.

The accusation of lying has two aspects in all of this, one a tiny fig leaf hiding the real consideration. The ostensible objection to lying is the old-fashioned one, and I hope it is still considered libellous to call somebody a liar for no other reason than most people consider it wrong. But you may well wonder, if such people are happy to have truly horrible behaviour described in detail in print, why should they balk at being called a liar as well as everything else?

The reason, of course, is that the libel laws create as well as maintain morality. If you sell your story, the one thing you are guaranteeing is that it will stand up against the attentions of other libel lawyers. In objecting to Heat magazine's imputation, this lady was not so much protecting her reputation, as - perhaps unwittingly - the initial investment of the Sunday People.

Clarity is always to be commended in these areas, so we ought to be absolutely clear about this. Ms Amy Barker did indeed have sexual relations with a man just before his wedding and subsequently took the trouble to inform not just his new wife and family, with what distress we cannot guess, but the general public, too.

However, in doing so, she was entirely truthful, and is by no means the sort of girl who would ever tell fibs or exaggerate when talking to a newspaper. That virtue, we can trust, will remain unquestioned when everything else has gone.