Lies, damned lies and the internet
We were far too eager to believe this week's Beckham rumour
Saturday November 30, 2002
Just as there's a smell in the air which warns of a storm and a tingle on the skin which is a prelude to flu, so we've become used to the little shifts in the atmosphere which hint at an impending scandal. Last Friday, the newsagent warned me to come in early on the following Sunday to be sure of the usual order, and a journalist friend insisted that David Beckham would soon have lost the England captaincy and his reputation for saintliness.
Such predictions of tabloid orgasm for last weekend spread across Britain. But even before they were traced back to an internet-spread falsehood which the Beckhams have now legally crushed, this seemed unlikely to me - not because of any certainty about the footballer but due to doubts about the person passing on the tip. The same person confidently confided one day last year that George Bush was dead.
The reasoning behind that belief is worth considering in detail because it illuminates what happened to Beckham. The White House had admitted in a statement that the American president was about to undergo a routine medical examination of his rectum. As he would be unconscious during this procedure, power would be passed to Vice-President Cheney.
Because it was so manifestly unlikely that the leader of the free world would break off during a war on terrorism to have his bottom probed, the journalist in question had concluded that the White House was lying and Bush was dead. This must be a holding statement while national security was assured. From haemorrhoids to armageddon in two easy steps.
A similar cynical illogicality became the fire under the Beckham lies. His absence from the Manchester United team and the publicity circuit for the past 10 days or so was due, innuendo suggested, to a personal crisis which now had him closeted with lawyers and spin doctors. In fact, the explanations for this sudden sporting and media silence were a rib injury, a family holiday in the Caribbean and an understandable reluctance to advertise his movements from a man whose dependents had recently been the subject of an alleged kidnap plot.
What's odd is that, despite the frequent evidence that newspapers and the internet frequently double as garbage chutes, our natural instinct is to assume that any tittle-tattle about a celebrity is true. On the question of whether smoke always leads to flames, our imaginations are all on a firefighters' strike.
Two factors trigger this scepticism. The first is that recent experience has shown us that there's no rumour so ridiculous that it couldn't be true. The Tittle-Tattle branch of Ladbroke's would now refuse to take bets on whether an American president might receive fellatio from an intern kneeling in the Oval Office, or if a morally crusading Tory prime minister could keep secret a long affair with a ministerial colleague.
With incredulity an increasingly lost art, it requires a certain self-confidence to go on holding the line that the earth really is round and that Elvis Presley isn't in an underground recording studio somewhere. David Beckham is prone to provoking revisionist hints because the virtues he represents - an apparently perfect husband and father - are rare not only in the general population but especially so in football.
Our welcoming response to gossip is also shaped by an unjustified belief in unofficial sources. For years, the country was divided into two nations when it came to information, with journalists cheerfully discussing scuttlebutt about royals, politicians and celebrities which would never be published for reasons of either inaccuracy or defamation.
The web, with its unlawyered democracy of nonsense, has reversed this system - those in the media are now often behind taxi drivers or commuters in their knowledge of what the royal butler allegedly saw or which Blackburn Rovers footballer has supposedly been playing away.
It's true that the internet proved more reliable than the White House during the Lewinsky story - and has shown less moral and legal discretion than the press when reporting footballers - but we should never forget that the web is a journalistic equivalent of the theory about how long it would take chimpanzees to type Hamlet. With all the information cyberspace contains, some of it is bound to be true.
The reassurance that the feet within Beckham's golden boots are not made of clay intriguingly coincided with the suggestion that Mother Teresa of Calcutta - long canonised by the mainstream media and now being fast-tracked through the actual Vatican process - may not have believed in God. Her private diaries have revealed a level of doubt and spiritual desolation which make her seem more like a Graham Greene priest than the icon of Catholicism she was for many.
Regrettably, given the psychological and technological trends in our society, the Calcutta revelations rather encourage the view that we should be routinely sceptical about all public images. Get into a chatroom now: David Attenborough seen in a panda-fur coat, Cliff Richard at an all-night brothel orgy, Tony Blair secreting a copy of Socialist Worker inside his edition of the Spectator.
But, as we consider the new possibility that the 20th century's most famous nun was an atheist, it's some reassurance that - whatever the internet, newsagents and journalists believed last weekend - David Beckham remains a saint.