Ideally, the British press would have behaved a lot better last week, when it reported the premature death of the fashion designer L’Wren Scott. Who was also the girlfriend of Mick Jagger. Critics of the coverage are correct: it was not only brutal, but a breach of the press’s own guidelines for red tops to plaster photos of Jagger’s stricken face all over front pages, sexist to suggest that the relationship with Jagger was the most significant achievement of Scott’s life, and shameful to speculate, the day after her suicide, about possible motivation – her debts, a separation, Jagger’s alleged form in causing female despair?
It is not, presumably, that such commentary is too disreputable to publish, ever. The speculation about Ted Hughes, during his lifetime, by academics, as well as fans, who held him responsible for Sylvia Plath’s (and Assia Wevill’s) suicide, went much further in offensiveness than last week’s media insinuations about Scott’s business and Jagger’s either flagging or utterly unshakeable commitment. “The temptation to do little but recreate Plath’s biography through her work – and, implicitly, to try to unearth the complex reasons for her tragic suicide – overtakes the most focused reader,” wrote her biographer, Linda Wagner-Martin. And when you think that Virginia Woolf’s suicide was derided after her inquest in 1941, in newspapers misrepresenting her act as indulgent – didn’t she know there was a war on? – the Jagger/Scott coverage does not necessarily expose something outstandingly callous about the contemporary media, so much as their enhanced methods of intrusion.
Was the reporting so shocking, anyway, as to amount to yet another argument for the more coercive form of press regulation currently advocated by Hacked Off, the group whose figurehead is Hugh Grant? At least one of its prominent supporters thinks so and on this website many below-the-line commenters agreed. By chance, the latest stage in Hacked Off’s campaign – full-page newspaper advertisements listing hundreds of celebrity supporters – appeared the same week that these papers and their readers drank deeply of the suffering of L’Wren Scott and Mick Jagger. Even when they did not inspect Jagger’s ravaged face, more genteel publications also savoured the story in detail, running extensive pieces about Scott’s troubled fashion business and tributes from journalists who had known the designer, danced with her (even been inside her flat, with its four shades of pale grey), along with solemn commentary wondering if it was all, basically, down to no kids or marriage: “She was going to turn 50 next month.”
Never previously having read anything longer than a fashion caption about L’Wren Scott, I devoured the lot, and of all the tributes found the most intriguing, by far, to be Mick Jagger’s on Facebook, which concluded: “I will never forget her.” They’d been together for 13 years. Leave aside that curious public assurance, why did Jagger feed his guideline-breaching persecutors, and us, their mass audience, any words at all? To close down further speculation? Or to acknowledge that, after half a century of adulation, public absorption in his personal affairs should not always be dismissed or made, as Leveson and Hacked Off’s supporters would like, to feel thoroughly ashamed of itself?
The sooner to bring to an end press intrusion, that organisation’s advertisement urging submission to a royal charter featured some of showbusiness’s biggest names, from Graham Norton to fellow television personality and face of Walker’s crisps, Gary Lineker. As much as I despise how Lineker pimps fatty junk food to an obesity-prone generation, courtesy of a (reputed) £1.5m-per-year BBC platform supplied by licence payers, I can see that the impact of this same talent’s “halo effect” may cause his fans to reconsider the case for a royal charter designed, among other things, to protect celebrities such as Lineker from unjustified invasions of their privacy. Maybe, if you really admire Lineker, the still-boyish sporting personality, the punitive damages that are planned for any publisher not signing up for official regulation designed to curb the behaviour of a fading generation of alleged malefactors, many of whom are now on trial, start to look reasonable.
For other fans, Miranda Hart, warmly recollected from Call the Midwife, will be the name that swings support for the half-baked scheme that has barely been debated since it was dreamed up over pizza at a 2am gathering attended by Hacked Off and a random group of pre-digital politicians – notwithstanding Chummy’s proximity to co-signatories such as Richard Branson, John Cleese, the bishop of Wakefield and, of course, Hugh Grant, whose solitary protestations are apt to fall so flat. For me, having been left worryingly dry-eyed at Leveson by Max Mosley’s struggle to keep his unusually costumed orgies a secret between him and a team of loyal sex-workers, it was immediately disconcerting to spot at least five of my favourite writers on the royal charter’s endorsement, along with several big cinema names not known to have been hacked, and no fewer than three Doctor Whos.
Maybe, if it is supported by Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan and Philip Pullman, along with Emma Thompson, Danny Boyle and, most toweringly, Benedict Cumberbatch, state control really is the only possible solution – and not, as is sometimes said, a vengeful and chaotic parliamentary response to historic duck house exposés. Maybe we should simply trust the creatives’ collective hunch (given that individual arguments/Dacre horrors have not, for the most part, been supplied) that an entire trade must now atone for a criminal minority’s secret abuses of privacy.
Or would that be like buying an Israeli SodaStream purely because Scarlett Johansson is sooo beautiful, and likes SodaStream, made in the West Bank, and feels, frankly, that it’s not a problem, until “someone comes up with a solution to the closing of that factory”? Is it right to dismiss concerns about censorship raised in a cautionary new report from the World Association of Newspapers, purely because David Tennant was sublime as Richard 11 and Sam Mendes has literally reinvented the James Bond brand? And, incidentally, some waverers want to know, where in this most random of round robins is Tom Hiddleston?
You can see why Hacked Off might want to reduce the argument to fabulous celebrity line-up v grubby relics of media self-interest, rather than rehearse the familiar, if still chilling experiences of press victims, such as the McCanns, some of whose tormentors are still at work. And who knows, maybe Gary Lineker, the global Cheese and Onion ambassador, and Branson, shy face of Virgin, are infinitely more persuasive than the hideously persecuted Christopher Jefferies, another name now engulfed by the A-list. But how does Hacked Off’s brilliant exploitation of celebrity, for its own sake, help advance the case against media celebrity exploitation that is, in the opinion of Hacked Off’s star supporters, so severe as to require the end of the free press? Mick Jagger’s right not to be ignorantly gossiped about could depend upon the answer.
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