We love you, George, but you don't make it easy for us

Once again the singer gets a rough ride at the hands of the red-top newspapers thanks to his latest car incident, but for how much longer will his fans hold on to their sympathy, wonders Simon Price

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Every time they hear the name "George Michael", campaigners for the relaxation of the drug laws must flinch. On the face of it, you'd think that such a high-profile celebrity user would be a godsend to ganja liberationists but, unlike Bob Marley – literally the poster boy for the cause – George's weed habit carries no positive connotations in the public imagination.

It is important to acknowledge, up front, that when the singer was arrested in the early hours of Friday following a high-speed shunt between his silver Range Rover and a lorry on the A34 near Chieveley, he was later released without charge, having tested negative for drink or drugs.

However, he does have form. He has only just returned to driving after a two-year ban, having pleaded guilty in June 2007 to driving under the influence of GHB, cannabis and antidepressants and smashing into three parked cars in Hampstead (not to mention driving off without notifying the owners). The previous year, he was twice cautioned for cannabis possession after being found asleep at the wheel.

There is, of course, no condoning drug-driving; and the fact that George hasn't actually killed anyone – or himself – is pure good fortune. It may be that he's a reformed character, and this week's incident was innocent, the sort of motoring mishap that might happen to anyone. Given his reckless recent record, however, it is inevitable that many will assume that there's no smoke without ... smoke.

That said, the reportage of George's waywardness smacks of homophobia. It was admittedly hard to suppress a guilty smirk at The Sun headline "George Michael shunts trucker in the rear", but unless I missed something, none of the coverage of Tottenham Hotspur midfielder David Bentley's close encounter with a street lamp alluded to his sexuality.

Similarly, when Pete Doherty is arrested for driving with a car full of drugs, it is accepted as part of some romanticised rock'n'roll myth. When a fortysomething homosexual does it, we are expected to believe that he is the most evil man on earth.

The driving-under-the-influence incidents didn't do George, or the wider decriminalisation debate, any favours. Even Amy Winehouse, whose paparazzi pictures are the most powerful Just Say No propaganda imaginable, doesn't hurt anyone else (besides the odd bar scuffle). As long as you aren't stupid enough to get behind the wheel, smoking a joint is arguably a victimless crime, if one discounts those satellite crimes that occur directly because of its illegality.

George Michael, famously, already knows a thing or two about victimless crimes. In 1998, he was arrested for importuning in a public lavatory in Los Angeles, an incident that to any sane observer brought more disgrace upon the LAPD and its entrapment policy than upon the accused.

The red-tops, then as now, went in for the kill, but it backfired: if anything, the British public only loved him more. It figures: straight males have always envied the gay scene for its tradition of easy, no-strings sexual encounters. It helped that his reaction to the arrest was so brilliantly ballsy: the song "Outside" and its accompanying video, set in a toilet which mutated into a disco complete with mirrorball urinals, and tight-trousered dancing cops.

In retrospect, it is incredible that the bigots of the gutter press didn't go for the jugular with George a decade earlier. It is even more incredible that no one suspected that he and his Wham! sidekick Andrew Ridgeley were anything other than the hetero dreamboats they purported to be, especially if you watch the "Club Tropicana" video, featuring our heroes gazing at each other's tanned torsos in mutual admiration, larking about in the pool, and strutting off wearing airline trolley-dolly uniforms (male ones, but still). Only the unique context of the 1980s, in which far more blatant gender-bending abounded, could such high levels of camp have gone undetected. How did nobody twig that George Michael was, to quote one disillusioned former fan of my acquaintance, "as bent as an Arab's dagger"? Once the secret was out, the papers couldn't get enough of it, feigning horror at his Hampstead Heath cruising exploits while displaying prurient fascination.

Why even worry over whether George is unjustly treated? Why not just throw him to the tabloid dogs, and forget about it? Well, apart from the aforementioned issues of prejudice and hypocrisy, there's the simple fact that there has always been plenty to love about George Michael.

From the very earliest days, Wham! were misunderstood, dismissed as pin-up pop fluff. Their debut single, "Wham! Rap", was actually a brilliantly sly celebration of benefit culture, turning the dole-queue gloom of the Thatcher era on its head. For some, Wham! were trivialising the issue or, worse, offering escapism. In reality, their hearts were in the right place, and unlike many of their chart-topping rivals they nailed their colours to the mast by speaking out against the deployment of US cruise missiles on British soil, and by playing benefit concerts for striking miners.

As Wham!'s career developed, George slowly emerged as an exceptional songwriter, perhaps the prime example being "Everything She Wants", its embittered lyrics expressing a lifetime's experience from a mere 21-year-old. His solo years have been mixed: for every dismal, chin-stroking dirge like "Father Figure" there has been a life-affirming disco stormer like "Fastlove".

One thing he's never lost is his bravery or his wit, and in 2002 he showed both with a song that put his career on the line. After the invasion of Afghanistan, but before the invasion of Iraq, he hijacked a Human League sample and turned it into "Shoot the Dog", a powerful critique of British toadying towards American foreign policy, with a cartoon video characterising Tony Blair as George Bush's pet poodle (and, in concert, the hanging of an inflatable Dubya).

If the tabloids relish anything more than outing someone as gay, it is subsequently crucifying them for being too outspoken about it. And for speaking out about matters other than sexuality? You're doomed. George was crucified for "Shoot the Dog" and, at a time when broadcasters were still jumpy about anything critical of the "war on terror", the video was barely seen. The single failed to make the UK top 10, and failed to chart in America completely. His career was on hold.

The public turned out to his enormously popular 25 tour regardless, and since his "Shoot the Dog" dip he has exhibited a desire, perhaps even a desperation, to gain acceptance on the mainstream's terms, sending himself up on Little Britain and Extras. He doesn't need to. There are plenty of reasons to keep on loving George on his own unapologetic terms. If only he wouldn't make it so hard for those of us who want to do so, and so easy for those who don't.

George, for God's sake get a chauffeur. We know you can afford it. And I'm sure Andrew Ridgeley could do with the money.

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