An affair to remember

So, is David Beckham playing away from home, and do we care?

I would be skipping on the fringes of libel even to speculate, but a tantalising glimpse is offered by David Beckham’s comment on the allegations.

“During the past few months I have become accustomed to reading more and more ludicrous stories about my private life,” he said in a statement. “What appeared this morning is just one further example. The simple truth is that I am very happily married, have a wonderful wife and two very special kids.”

This is not an off-the-cuff remark. He and his handlers will have spent hours discussing the wording and the result is, to quote Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men, a non-denial denial.

In the coming weeks we can expect the Beckhams to eschew aggressive rebuttals and opt instead for a privacy defence. Legally this is perfectly sensible, but it may prove too cautious if they hope to win the media battle.

The tabloids and their readership don’t like it when their heroes get cagey. Stars with a profile like Beckham’s do not recover from a serious allegation until they come clean (or appear to come clean) with the public – either through a detailed alibi or a humbling confession. If the weight of evidence is against you – a point not yet reached with the Beckhams – then your only hope of recovery is a mea culpa.

The “I’m only human” card has worked for stars from Hugh Grant to Shane Ritchie. No-one begrudges George Michael for using public conveniences for his private convenience, and even Pete Townshend is making a comeback after he apologised for paying for child pornography, a crime for which even criminals will throw you off a balcony.

But why should Beckham play that game? Is he not entitled to privacy? The answer is an unequivocal “no”. Tabloid pundits say that if you live by the sword, you must die by the sword. Broadsheet pundits talk about entering a Faustian pact with the media. But in layman’s terms Beckham has to accept that if the public is interested in reading stories as mundane as “Romeo tattoo for Becks” (a story his publicity team happily gave to The Sun) then it will be fascinated by stories in which he is undergoing a real drama.

Celebrities are like magic tricks. We admire a talented conjurer pulling the wool over our eyes, but what we really want to know is how the trick is done. The same is true of people with fairytale lifestyles. We like to see their matching golden thrones at their weddings, but ultimately we want to know that they are as human as we are.

But if you need a moral justification for press intrusion, here it is: Beckham is not just defending David and Victoria, he is protecting a multi-million pound brand.

He is paid more for posing for advertisements than he is for playing football, and the reason he is the ad-man’s Eldorado is not because of his skills on the field, good looks or even his insightful wit. It is because he has built a following through years of carefully-managed self-promotion. The public has bought into that brand and it is entitled to know whether it is tarnished, just as customers of KFC would be entitled to know the truth behind allegations that one of Colonel Sanders’s 11 herbs and spices was dandruff.

(originally posted April 6, 2004)

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