This week I spent more hours than I'd care to admit riveted by the testimony at the Leveson inquiry – the U.K.'s latest government-led phone-hacking brouhaha, this one specifically focused on the "culture, practice and ethics of the press."
For such a miserable affair, it was also fascinating. It's not often that celebrity gossip presents itself in such a palatably respectable package, after all. Usually my dips into the online cesspool of the lifestyles of the rich, rancid and famous leaves me feeling suitably guilty and in need of a good scrub, if not a smack upside the head – but not this phone-hacking business.
Just think: One can smugly pride oneself on being a high-minded reader (and, in my case, serious newspaper columnist) who is interested only in the pressing issue of media ethics and public privacy, while simultaneously getting the scoop on Hugh Grant's baby mama Tinglan Hong (apparently he never considered her "a girlfriend in the formal sense") and the tale of how Elle Macpherson grossly mistreated her long-suffering adviser (more on that later).
Of the nearly 6,000 people on the suspected phone-hacking victims list, more than a few are household names – actors, royals, famous athletes and the like – and the testimony they've given so far has been an astonishing and unbridled excoriation of the tabloid press. It has also offered incontrovertible proof (as if we needed it) that British actors are about a thousand times more articulate than their Hollywood counterparts. Can you imagine, for example, Ben Affleck describing the latest US Weekly dispatch on the state of his personal life as "a dispassionate sociopathic act by those who operate in an amoral universe," as Steve Coogan did on Tuesday? Or Ashton Kutcher drily observing that, "the tabloids these days talk a lot about freedom of expression, but criticism of themselves has never been allowed. And that is why they have had so little of it for so long," as Hugh Grant did in his testimony the day before?
But perhaps the reason why American actors are less verbally adept at defending themselves is because they mostly needn't bother. British tabloids such as the Sun, the Mail on Sunday and the now-defunct News of the World make their transatlantic counterparts look like harmless teenaged girls gabbing on the sidelines of a vicious cage fight. In terms of ruthlessness, there's simply no contest.
The unfortunate (yet also delectable) irony of the Leveson inquiry is that it's been turning up more dirt on the very celebrities whose privacy was allegedly violated in the first place. Take the aforementioned Macpherson, she of many Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue covers and the wildly successful panties line. Earlier this week, Macpherson's former brand manager, Mary-Ellen Field, told the inquiry about how, when presumably phone-hacked "tiddle-taddle" about Macpherson's personal life began appearing in the press, Field was wrongly suspected as the source of the information by the (understandably paranoid) former supermodel. "She [Elle]put her arms around me and cried, and said that she knows what it's like to be an alcoholic," Field testified. Field, not an alcoholic but afraid of losing her job, then allowed herself to be sent, at her boss's expense, to the Meadows Clinic in Arizona, a place Macpherson had apparently described to her as "like a spa or something," but which was in fact "a Grade 1 psychiatric facility with men with guns in holsters who were parading around the place." Field returned to work "cured" of her "disease," and when the stories continued, Macpherson went ahead and fired her anyway.
An interesting tale, is it not? But is it because of what it shows us about the evil alleged phone hackers and the consequences of their amoral actions on decent working people's lives? Or wait (let's dig deep here, people), are we interested because of what it tells us about Elle Macpherson and her supposed history of alcohol and staff abuse? And if the latter, what does this say about us? Do we even want to know? More important, how many more rhetorical questions might it lead to before we lose our collective mind?
Evolutionary psychologists will have you believe that our fascination with the personal lives of celebrities – in particular their sexual, cosmetic and reproductive lives – is the natural biological result of an innate need to size up the competition, particularly that which is young, fertile and remarkably good-looking. The willingness of the tabloid press (particularly in Britain) to go to almost any lengths to purvey such information would seem to bear this out.
After years of self-study, I'm convinced my own vague but persistent interest in the lives of celebrities is the result of a base, but wholly natural, human instinct. I can feel the urge coming on, much like a craving for deep-fried food or the occasional pang for a cigarette. I know it's bad for me, but I want it anyway. Sometimes I indulge, but mostly I don't. The best deterrent is concentrating on how such indulgences make me feel about myself (deliciously naughty, then just bad). The only lasting solution, of course, is avoid the evil thing altogether, since the more you see of it, the more you desire.
The Leveson inquiry might be feeding our most basic instincts now, but let's hope the press reform and privacy legislation it produces helps to curb our ignoble desire to gawk. In the meantime, I'll indulge while I can.