Terence Blacker: The dirty secrets of the stars help to lift our gloom

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The Independent Online

In better, purer times, the questions of privacy relating to the exposure of Gwyneth Paltrow's bottom might well have been an urgent cause for public concern. After all, she trusted that photographer from Harper's Bazaar, even though he was a Frenchman. He had promised that he would crop the shot appropriately, having told Gwyneth that removing her underwear would avoid what she describes, in a curiously arousing phrase, as "indentation". As the star later told the press, "I am a very open person and I love to have fun and have a good time. But I generally keep that side of myself in private."

She is, of course, right to complain. As the public craving for celebrity gossip grows more ravenous, so privacy, every centimetre of it, becomes more precious. Some public figures attempt to defend their private lives by moving about anonymously, but they are almost always unsuccessful – J K Rowling, the latest exhibit in the celebrity zoo, was snapped this week by a grimy lensman as she bought a pair of knickers.

Others are more open and treat us as if we are grown-up by confiding the pains of being famous. Brad Pitt has just complained that intrusions into his marriage to Jennifer Aniston have left them no room to be human, saying that a savagely distorted version of their lives has become merely "another story, a whole new other life for the rags".

Intrusion is bad for the victims and is probably not terribly good for us, the boggling punters. This stern, sensible view that clearly informed last week's High Court judgment by Mr Justice Jack, who granted the injunction by an unnamed footballer who was anxious that details of his love life should not appear in the press.

It was the usual kind of story – married footballer meets lap dancer, has affair, meets another girl in a bar, has another affair, and both girls try to sell their stories to the tabloids – but Mr Justice Jack decided that reading about it would be harmful to all concerned. His argument was startlingly simple. Sex, he said, was a private matter. In going to bed with someone, a person was engaging in a duty of confidentiality. For that confidence to be broken for reasons of cash and prurience was wrong.

At first glance, it seems a humane and sensitive judgment. If you or I had an affair with a lap dancer or a footballer, we would normally prefer the details of our sex life, however multiple or varied, to be kept private. It is only when one imagines what the newspapers would be like without intimate insights of celebrity life – Blair, Byers, the dodgy Scotsman with his expenses problem, unleavened by any stories of bottoms, knickers or bonking – that the full dreariness of the world proposed by Mr Justice Jack becomes clear.

Famous people provide entertainment for the rest of us, in their work, in their lives, and sometimes in their beds. In an increasingly grim world, the latest news of their waistlines, their shopping binges, their addictions and personality disorders, their serial randiness, their imploding relationships and marriages, help keep us going. In our hearts, we know we are being fed a garishly distorted alternative version to the reality and we even understand that the media, feeding our gossip habit, can hurt and do harm.

But somehow that has now become an accepted part of fame. There must be limits to intrusion, of course, but the idea that sex should involve a code of silence and discretion is simply too depressing to contemplate. Just as people in the Depression flocked to see the excesses of the latest Busby Berkely extravaganza on the screen, so we need details of the intimate life of the stars, their taste in underwear, their adventures with lap dancers, their uncropped bums, to keep us cheerful through the gloomy times.