How to feed the press without being eaten

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AS A cricketer, Ian Botham was a swing bowler, but, in his just-published memoirs, he attempts some interesting bits of spin. His bad lad media image - drink, drugs, women, fisticuffs - was apparently the fault of malevolent journalists. And why did they have it in for him? Well, because 'For some reason, we distrust winners . . . . when it comes to success stories, all the media want to do is find ways to bring them down . . . it all comes down to jealousy.'

This is a good example of the takeaway Big Mac morality that headline names are always trying to force down the throats of the public: that the media spitefully persecute stars for their own amusement rather than that of their readers and viewers. But, as this column occasionally tries to point out, the feeding and eating arrangements between the press and celebrities are much more elaborate. Ian Botham wrote a column for the Sun. He launched his memoirs with a press conference.

Stars use the press. The press uses stars. Although moaning about mistreatment is useful therapy for them, celebrities need, and have, a more formal media strategy. And, as it happens, recent days have shown us - in the personalities of HM the Queen, Tony Blair and Phil Collins - the three main available approaches to press relations: to sue, to brief, to collaborate.

The Queen's intention to consider libel action - over media reports about the finances of the Royal Household - is a dramatic new tactic. Indeed, it has long been a popular English urban myth that the Queen, being the Crown, is not allowed to sue. (Libel cases, though, are not Crown prosecutions. The problem would only arise if the Queen ever needed to be tried for, say, fraud or murder.)

But her decision is an admission of weakness. The traditional reason for mounting a libel action, apart from vanity, is that an individual's reputation or business is in danger of being ruined. Hence consideration of this strategy underlines the rockiness of the monarchy. While admitting that the rot is there, however, the Queen is also clearly trying to stop it. The British libel system, although supposedly a mechanism for dispensing redress, has frequently been used by the rich and powerful as a device for intimidation: most infamously by Robert Maxwell. The threat does not have to be made explicit. By winning half a million pounds in the libel courts, Jeffrey Archer ensured that newspaper lawyers went pale whenever his name appeared in print, and encouraged timidity from journalists.

The recent tough coverage of Lord Archer's share dealing activities shows, however, that recourse to law does not always warn off future tormentors. The individual or institution must offer no incitement to investigation. Even as the monarch was consulting her lawyers, the tabloids were illustrating the new media liberty towards the royals by featuring details from a new book - about the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles - called The King And His Mistress, a title in which the first element is premature and the second astonishingly frank by the standards of only a few years ago. Famously a keen horsewoman, the Queen should be well aware of the wisdom concerning the shutting of stable doors.

Tony Blair will soon have to decide whether to use libel actions as a tactic against press offensives. (Neil Kinnock, in the same job, was a frequent litigant, and was successful financially, although his legal victories never led to political ones.) For the moment, though, he is following the more conventional political approach of treating potential ills with a spin doctor. Last week's appointment of the journalist Alastair Campbell to be Blair's press spokesman was a clever one - Campbell is a star performer. But the real decisions have yet to be made.

Blunt and with an intimidating will, Campbell looks uncomfortably like Blair's attempt to build a Sir Bernard Ingham of his own. Will Campbell - if Blair reaches No 10 - perpetuate the half-stupid, half-sinister British tradition of anonymous lobby briefings or offer quotation under his own name, in the style of American presidential spokesmen? This is a small but important matter and its resolution will tell us a little more about whether Blair is an innovator or an imitator. Practically, there may simply be the problem, as there was with late-period Ingham, that Campbell has too distinctive a tongue to use the cover of 'sources'. Also, Dr Campbell, representing a Labour leader, will find the press more likely to hit against the spin than was the case during Ingham's anonymous apotheosis.

Our third case study - the pop star Phil Collins - was unable, in his predicament, to utilise either lawyers or off-the-record briefings. Reports that he was no longer with his wife but instead with a woman half his age were true and accurate, and the tabloid papers, Collins's natural constituency, prefer their stories from the horse's mouth rather than its other end. So Collins tried a third tactic: collaboration. He offered an exclusive interview, giving his side of the story and dewy pictures with his new friend, to the News of the World. Collins benefited from an earlier strategy towards media relations. He had built up a chummy relationship with Piers Morgan, now the paper's editor, when Morgan was a showbiz columnist on the Sun.

This ploy - if they're beating you, join them, or at least one of them - is currently popular with beleagured big-shots. The Princess of Wales tried it with the Daily Mail reporter Richard Kay during her telephone troubles. Perhaps Collins, who is a known friend of the princess, was even given the idea by her in one of her audible phone calls. I doubt, though, that the tactic will catch on, because both sides lose.

The newspaper is forced to follow the line thrown out by its catch. The News Of The World, for example, has not taken the side of the husband in marriage troubles - its heroines have been such as Mrs Aspel and Mrs Mellor - and sympathy for Mr Collins is something of a commercial gamble. Simultaneously, those newspapers not favoured with the exclusive become more hostile to the subject. The star's stroll round Paris on Sunday with his young love probably received rather more attention than it would have done before that day's supposed damage-limitation trick.

A star in real trouble is one who has tried all three devices. The Queen is now thinking of suing because the Palace's attempts at off-the- record briefings have conspicuously failed. My guess is that, within a few years, Her Majesty will resort to a formal interview with some broadly neutral interlocutor, such as the Press Association. But these are the three directions for a celebrity at the crossroads. We pay our money and they take their choice.