Set an example, Becks: don't go to court

The news that Beckham has been goaded into legal action is a worrying turn of events
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The Independent Online

There are few more reliable sources of innocent public entertainment than the British libel courts. With a suitably starry cast of plaintiffs and defendants - Jonathan Aitken, Mr Bean, Jeffrey Archer, the actress who once sued a TV critic for saying her bum was too big - libel cases invariably provide a wonderful showcase for the pomposity, greed, vanity and self-importance of public life.

There are few more reliable sources of innocent public entertainment than the British libel courts. With a suitably starry cast of plaintiffs and defendants - Jonathan Aitken, Mr Bean, Jeffrey Archer, the actress who once sued a TV critic for saying her bum was too big - libel cases invariably provide a wonderful showcase for the pomposity, greed, vanity and self-importance of public life.

Occasionally, newspapers are revealed to be venal or sadistic (no particular surprise there), but more often it is the complainant who ends up out of pocket and looking stupid. Either way, it is marvellous fun which has the added benefit of providing the rest of us with a pleasurable shudder of moral superiority.

So the news that David Beckham, until now a model of restraint and good sense, has been goaded into taking legal action against the News of the World is a worrying turn of events. It was not, strangely enough, the allegations of a sex-and-text affair with the dreary Loos woman that caused Mr and Mrs Beckham to consult m'learned friends, but the claim - apparently enough to cause the couple "considerable distress" - that their marriage has recently become unhappy.

Even to a legal nitwit like me, suing someone for calling you unhappy would seem to pose certain problems. The law is supposed to be even-handed. Just as Posh and Becks would apparently like to represent happiness, other public figures have built a career and image on its polar opposite. Anita Brookner, one of literature's most enduring miserabilists, once told an interviewer that she could qualify for the Guinness World Records as the world's loneliest, most miserable woman. In the unlikely event of the News of the World exposing her as a popular, party-loving funster, would she, too, have a case in law?

At first, it is difficult to see what possessed this quiet, dignified sportsman and his sparkily intelligent wife, after years of rising above the scummy froth whipped up by tabloid hacks, now to pursue such a perilous course. After all, as insults go, marital unhappiness is relatively easy to disprove, or at least defuse. The answer seems to be that they have belatedly fallen into the trap of taking themselves too seriously. Time and again, they have been told by ingratiating politicians or in sanctimonious editorials that they are role models for a generation of impressionable young people. Their behaviour is aped by millions who look up to them.

Now, presumably, the thinking is that if the Beckhams allow it to be thought that they have an unhappy marriage then soon kids all over the world will start flirting with this unhappiness thing; some might even get hooked and start mainlining downright misery. For the sake of millions, they have to take a stand in court.

The assumption which lies behind all this - that, of all public figures, successful sports stars should be setting an example - was cranked up another small notch this week. David Kidd, the chairman of something called the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools, has earnt himself headlines in the press by blaming sport for instilling negative values in young children.

Addressing delegates at his association's annual meeting, Kidd argued that every time a footballer took a dive or swore at the referee, a cricketer nicked the ball to the slips and refused to walk, a rugby prop-forward walloped his opposite number, then the job of teaching children to differentiate between good and bad behaviour became more difficult.

At this point, I need to set aside a personal prejudice. From experience, I know that the behaviour of grown-ups can have a profound influence on children at a young age but when, years ago, I first witnessed sustained adult injustice, hypocrisy and brutality, it was not a sportsman who was the negative role model but the headmaster of a prep school.

Assuming that the members of Mr Kidd's association are better behaved, I would argue that it is they who should be setting an example to children. Those of us who, as ordinary adults need only to be moderately competitive in order to survive, should also be doing our best not to cheat or bully, at least when children are around.

But it is absurd to expect those who are trying to earn a living at the top level of sport also to be great exemplars of correct behaviour. As the recent Olympics reminded us, great sport can point up the best, and worst, in the human spirit. Sometimes - quite often, in fact - the two are interlinked. Those who are the most successful are quite often not the nicest. Professionals misguidedly playing by Corinthian rules tend to come last.

It would be terrific if all our sporting heroes won their trophies and medals while at the same time showing the world how to live with grace, generosity, fairness and marital happiness, but that tends not to happen. We may prefer them to be well behaved but, above all, we want them to be winners.

It is up to Mr Kidd and his fellow teachers to explain the complexities of competitive society, while discouraging little divers and cheats, and it is for Beckham and his kind to compete as well as they can - while avoiding, if at all possible, visits to the High Court.

terblacker@aol.com

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