Offside, 6 December
Beckham spam reaches all four corners of cyberspace.
Scarcely a day passes without a newspaper story about David Beckham. From kidnap plots to broken feet, from thongs and sarongs to the latest loopy hairstyle, the public appetite for Beckham-related news and gossip is apparently insatiable. Where public debate once thrived there is now only tittle-tattle from Beckham World.
But the Beckhamisation of the public sphere took a new twist this week when rumours about the England captain’s love life were, in the words of Jeff Beck, everywhere and nowhere baby. In the ‘old media’ – print and broadcast – the rumour was nowhere to be found.
But at the same time the story was everywhere. Millions knew the precise details of the allegations thanks to the new media. While libel-wary newspapers referred obliquely to ‘rumours’ about the player’s private life, the full salacious details could be found on viral emails and internet message boards.
Barry Schnitt, PR coordinator for the search engine Google, told me that ‘For the week ending 2 December, “david beckham” was the number one gaining query, with a 25-fold increase in searches’. According to Schnitt, there were ‘tens of thousands’ of Google searches for the words ‘david beckham rumours’ in the past week. The much-vaunted ‘information society’ may not have materialised, but the internet has made a historic contribution to the globalisation of gossip.
Eventually, after the allegations had been spammed around all four corners of cyberspace (if indeed cyberspace has any corners), a spokeswoman for the footballer issued a statement insisting that there was ‘absolutely no truth whatsoever’ in the ‘malicious rumours’, and warned that publication of the rumours ‘would result in legal liability for defamation’.
Libel lawyers have cautioned that anyone who forwarded the defamatory email – possibly millions of people – could be sued. ‘If David Beckham comes across the email in question, he could quite easily sue the sender because they are repeating the allegations to a third party’, libel lawyer Mark Stephens told the Mirror (1). I stand to be proven wrong here, but somehow I can’t see Becks suing members of the public – not least because a large proportion of them are statistically likely to support Manchester United.
The Beckham saga has illustrated how internet chat-rooms, message boards and viral emails constitute a parallel public domain where allegations that the print and broadcast media won’t touch can spread rapidly. It is becoming increasingly common for celebrities publicly to deny rumours that have spread across cyberspace but have not actually appeared in print.
Recently Sol Campbell used a newspaper interview to refute rumours about his sexuality which, although unpublished, had been spread through internet message boards and terrace chants. ‘These people have tried to hold me in bondage for so long with their lies’, wailed the Arsenal defender in the style of an evangelical preacher. ‘Put me in a coma so I don’t know what’s going on’, he added. ‘They try to corrupt my friends and my family through jealousy and bitterness. But no more are they going to hold me in bondage.’ (2) That’s what happens when you listen to too many Lionel Ritchie albums, I guess.
The recent spate of celebrity cyber-rumours will no doubt lead to calls for tougher controls on the internet to protect the privacy of prominent public figures. While there is no intrinsic merit in celebrity gossip, freedom of speech should not be circumscribed in the name of protecting the privacy of the rich and famous.
Indeed David Beckham is living proof that celebrities are robust enough to withstand public ridicule without requiring protection from the law. Throughout his career Beckham has endured cruel terrace chants about his sex life, merciless public ridicule about his intellectual shortcomings, and national humiliation after his red card against Argentina in 1998. Yet he was strong enough to withstand the public vilification and eventually silenced the terrace boo-boys by leading England to World Cup qualification.
The record shows he took the blows, to paraphrase Frank Sinatra, which is why Becks is more than capable of shrugging off a bit of tittle-tattle without resorting to the libel laws.
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