These spoilt celebs are not victims

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Ahigh-speed chase, a terrified celebrity, a mysterious white car that has never been traced: David Beckham's explanation in court last week, when he appeared on a speeding charge, sounded uncannily similar to the circumstances surrounding the death of Diana, Princess of Wales. The footballer put forward the unusual defence of duress, claiming he was driving too fast only because he had been "petrified" by the behaviour of a photographer in a Ford Fiesta. His solicitor, Nick Freeman, complained that "this country does not afford celebrities such as Mr Beckham any protection for their privacy", thus introducing an entirely new persona into British culture.

Camera-shy David Beckham? We will be hearing next that Geri Halliwell is retiring from public life to spend more time with - well, the most likely companion would surely be her ego.

There is a moment in Alan Bennett's marvellous new play The Lady in the Van when the author - played on stage by two actors - goes to bed with himself. This sly piece of mockery, simultaneously acknowledging the seductive power of fame and the self-obsession attendant upon celebrity, got one of the biggest laughs from the first-night audience on Tuesday. It was made more piquant by the presence in the theatre of dozens of celebs who had fought their way to their seats through a crowd of autograph-hunters and paparazzi.

Famous people have a tendency to get up themselves. Mr Beckham's court appearance, following the imposition of a six-month driving ban earlier in the week on his Manchester United team-mate Andy Cole, led to headlines in the tabloids such as "Ban United FC". (Another team member, Dwight Yorke, was banned in October after a court heard that he had driven at 121mph on the M56 in Cheshire.) Most of the tabloids took the line that footballers, especially if they play for super-rich clubs like United, are spoilt brats who really should know better. Certainly the presiding magistrate in Mr Beckham's case, Nigel Flynn, was unimpressed by his solicitor's "duress" argument, and banned him from driving for eight months. He also fined him pounds 800. (He has subsequently had his licence returned pending an appeal.)

But this is not really a story about football, which just happens to be a glamorous profession that overpays its most talented performers and encourages an inflated sense of their importance. Any sensible motorist, worried by the erratic behaviour of another driver, would pull over, lock the doors and call the police, rather than accelerate wildly. I have always been puzzled as to why Dodi Fayed and Diana, fearing pursuit across Paris by photographers late at night, did not do one of two things: ask the French police for help, or book into a room at the Ritz Hotel owned by Mr Fayed's father, where they had been dining. Instead, they took off at high speed, in a limousine driven by a drunken driver, putting themselves and complete strangers at risk. It was sheer good luck that other cars, apart from the never-traced Fiat Uno, were not involved in the fatal smash in the underpass.

The perpetual cry of famous people in our culture is that they are victims, their privacy invaded and even their lives endangered by deranged fans and mercenary photographers. Unless a star happens to be in the class of relentless attention-seeking inhabited by Ms Halliwell, this claim often gets a sympathetic hearing. What has not been remarked on is the other side of this equation, which is the effect celebrities have on us - and I don't just mean the way they tear around in their Aston Martins and Ferraris, as if trying to embody the feminist critique of fast cars as a form of conspicuous sexual display.

Even more worrying is the link between sportsmen and violence, with the American boxer Mike Tyson perhaps the worst example. Tyson has been given jail sentences for rape, after he attacked a woman fan in a hotel room, and for a road-rage incident. Frank Bruno, Stan Colleymore and Paul Gascoigne have all been publicly shamed after incidents of domestic violence; only last week another footballer, Dean Holdsworth of Bolton Wanderers, was put on probation for 18 months after punching his wife at a charity event.

Mr Beckham's speeding offence is trivial by comparison - except, as he admitted in court last week, he feared that there would be a serious accident as he tried to escape from the unidentified photographer. I have heard quite enough from rich, glamorous people about how difficult their lives have been made by the fame they sought so single-mindedly in the first place. The time has come to demand that the public is protected from their narcissistic, infantile behaviour: save us from celebrities.


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