Fame exacts a price: the loss of privacy


Last Sunday, one newspaper heaved with bilious "revelations" from women - one Irish, one English - about their ex-menfolk. The English extracts were simply bizarre.

The Irish material was simply dreary, an account of mundane marital misery all the drearier for being a rehash. The fact that the paper had to exploit the name of a broadcaster caught in the cross-fire - big "news" aeons ago in another downmarket British paper - for its unique selling point, says it all.

The private lives of public figures, and the media's role in exposing them, has been a hot topic in recent weeks. Much self-serving cant has been thrown around but old questions remain.

Take two hard-working TDs. One races home to his family of an evening and bakes brown bread when he gets there. The other is consistently unfaithful to his wife.

Does this behaviour influence how you vote? Should it?

So long as it does not conflict with his public stance and carries no criminal convictions, is there ever a time when a public figure's private life becomes our business? Has public indulgence, tempered by liberal media, gone too far?

Is the traditional omerta surrounding public people's private conduct here - what the touring boyos call Lambay Island rules - just a cover for sleazy behaviour? If communities operate a kind of sanction system over errant members - and they do, sometimes to devastating effect, by withdrawing business patronage as well as friendship - why is it unacceptable to carry this through to a macro level?

At a recent social gathering, lifelong friendships were savaged over differing attitudes towards a public figure who had behaved badly. One side contended that the degenerates in the liberal media had let him off the hook. The other side, including a few media degenerates, argued that since he hadn't been convicted of any crime, they had no choice.

But did they really want that choice, asked the sceptical antis? Probably not, was the answer.

The man had a hard-working wife, family and neighbours who had maintained a stout, loyal silence. Who would cast the first stone? To what purpose?

The only sanction then was the ballot box. To be a public representative is a powerful and honourable position, horribly devalued now but still capable of shaping public discourse. Might it behove those in such positions to provide a modicum of leadership in matters of taste and morals? Had the man's private activities rendered him unacceptable as a public representative? The antis would say yes. The electorate said no.

So was the electorate influenced by the fact that the media had "soft-pedalled" the incident, as the antis allege? If, say, a Sunday paper had trotted out six of its finest to thunder at the accused to go in the name of God, would it have made a difference?

The media can order someone out twice a minute but if a man has balls of steel, a vacillating leader, enough supporters (who also happen to despise the Dublin media) and a silent family, they cannot force him to go.

The media's mightiest efforts failed to split up Bill and Hillary Clinton, or Jeffrey Archer and the fragrant Mary. And despite the multiple media platforms wheeled out for Margaret Cook, Robin seems happily ensconced in his second marriage.

Anyway, if we start to reject public figures on the basis of their alleged private activities, where do we stop? Do we refuse to recognise the court presided over by a judge rumoured to have a taste for youngish males? Do we turn down lucrative contracts from the well-known semi-State boss said to harass his female staff? Are the antis suggesting that the media should be the arbiters of private behaviour?

The point is that the media certainly try when it suits them. Papers in Britain have just rendered more or less unemployable three showbusiness figures who, crucially, had not been convicted of any crime. Angus Deayton, John Leslie and Michael Barrymore were television stars whose cocaine-fuelled behaviour reportedly ranged from merely rancid (in Deayton's case) to possibly criminal.

But those who rushed to their defence, arguing lack of due process and employers' cowardice, missed a central point. These men negotiated their vast paydays (Deayton got as much for a show as a TD gets in a year) on the basis of appealing to a particular strand of public taste. The court of public opinion is the one by which they live or die.

No one expected monkish role models, but if your target audience - as for Leslie and Barrymore - is of the mass market, family kind, then you'd better not frighten the horses. And clearly, if Scotland Yard is investigating complaints by four women against you or a sexually brutalised body is found in your swimming pool, the horses will bolt. Lads, you're just not cosy or funny any more. Deal's off.

As for Deayton, he became the butt of too many jokes to present a satirical show. Blame the arch-hypocrites in the red tops for exposing him in the first place, but even tweeny popstar aspirants know that modern fame has a price and that surveillance is the stock-in-trade.

It's not nice. But that's the deal.