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Letter from the editor

Virtual pets, virtual boyfriends ... but what about virtual celebrities? We had a brisk internal office argument this week about how much Independent readers wanted to know about Anthea Turner and her marriage break-up. (The answer turned out to be four centimetres.)

My problem is that I'm not sure I believe in Anthea Turner. Yes, she seems to exist. She appears on the telly and is much photographed for the tabloid press. But that could be a stand-in, or even a hologram.

It is quite clear why all-purpose celebs are required in modern societies. We are constantly talking and reading about the big, simple events of living - birth, sex, bereavement, accidents, the struggle for successful relationships and so on. Once we discussed and observed it all mainly through our friends and relations; now, in a more media-saturated world, it comes also through newspapers and broadcasting. That needs people - personalities - on to whose identities these timeless and eternally interesting questions can be draped. If they are good-looking and appear often enough to give the viewer the illusion that they are ersatz friends, so much the better.

Hence the celebrity business. The trouble is that even the most hard- working celebs must go through long periods when they are not kicking out lovers or husbands, giving birth, losing boyfriends in exotic accidents, drying out or ``speaking frankly for the first time''. They are, sadly, just too busy eating, sleeping, walking about the place, going to the car-wash and so on.

One answer is to ensure a constant supply of celebrity, but this is messy, time-consuming and expensive. As competition constantly erodes media budgets, and technology improves, the creation of Virtual Celebs, with faster-changing emotional lives than living people, is more satisfactory and economical. Hence ``Anthea'', ``Zoe'' and ``Chris'', who clearly pack far more into their lives than real people but are eternally available to be written about.

We already know that Melinda Messenger, for instance, is part-silicone, but that is surely only the start. The great thing about the Virtual Celeb is that he or she can be made to mate, overdose, tantrum and so on to order, providing my trade with the raw material in the handiest possible form. Japanese industrialists developed ``just-in-time'' manufacturing, where the car door or piece of tubing arrived just when it was wanted in the factory process, and not before. Well, now we can have just-in- time divorces, booze-ups and comings-out. Brilliant. I think we'll call our one Nikki.

Robin Cook's little local difficulties provide another tricky test about what should be left private and what should be published. I wouldn't want a French-style press, where people at the top can live lives greatly at variance from their public image without the slightest risk of exposure. Also, Mrs Cook, who is hurt and was dumped unceremoniously in the interests of New Labour's public face, has a right to talk about the effect of politics on people like her; all this stuff has come from her, remember, not from journalistic digging. That is why I thought it acceptable to report the bare facts, though not in gloating, lip-smacking detail.

But can it really be argued that Mr Cook's love-life has affected his public performance as a Foreign Secretary? Of course not. Has he pontificated about sexual morality? No. People may tut or snigger but, as a public issue, this is all complete nonsense.