Want to stalk Rio Ferdinand? Look no further than the newspapers

The intrusion into celebrities’ privacy is endemic – and it undermines the case for serious investig

Rio Ferdinand's ordeal at the hands of a stalker has made some of our favourite tabloids giddy with excitement. There's a celebrity tale, involving an England football star no less; there's the drama of a courtroom appearance; and there's the element of harassment, too, a man's private life having been invaded.

About that last point, though: one of the photos that kept cropping up in the coverage was an aerial photograph of Ferdinand's house. One caption of the house described Ferdinand's stalker as an "unwanted visitor" there, but it made me wonder: would a light plane buzzing overhead snapping pictures of your back garden be something you might welcome with a cheery wave? I am not so sure.

But I think it says something about the way we view celebrities that barely a second thought is given to using such a photo when discussing a matter of stalking. If we're talking about a man having an unwanted visitor at his house, then let's have a picture of the house, so that everyone can see what it looks like.

If you were a potential stalker of Rio Ferdinand, you wouldn't have to turn up at his house to see him going about his daily business, well away from the training ground. If you wanted to know all about his private life, you might want to see photos of him and his wife, and you'd probably want to know what kind of car he drives, and see him going out for a drink, or eating dinner. You might want to see pictures of him while he's on holiday as well, with that delightful "long lens" look about them. Here's Rio, going for a stroll. Rio eating dinner. Rio wearing shorts. Rio going for a swim. In case you didn't know, now you do.

But then that's the acceptable face of the private life made public. This is the way in which walking down the road, going on holiday, swimming on a beach or driving in a car becomes an event that must be shared, devoured, enjoyed by everyone, because there was someone there with a massive lens to make sure they'd find it. That's not stalking, that's celebrity culture.

The same flimsy fig leaf gets put into place every time we talk about intrusion of privacy: these are people who choose to be in the public eye, and therefore they're fair game. We hear the wails and foot-stamping as papers are told they can't roll around in the stinky ooze from a celebrity's marriage gone wrong or a footballer playing away because of an injunction: but we're entitled to do this! What about our rights? Don't you want to know who did what with whom and when? Of course you do! And we do. We buy it in sackloads.

Some of us might want to live in a world where we're forbidden to have access to photographs of Nigella Lawson on a beach in Australia, with bitchy text underneath saying she's wearing too many clothes for us to be able to point and giggle at her wobblier bits, which is perfectly understandable. It's cheap, trashy crap that adds nothing to anyone's understanding of anything, ever. But I suppose it's a question of who decides what is public and what isn't.

Perhaps there is a danger that if we made sure that everything behind closed doors stayed private, some rascals might get away with wrongdoing, the exposure of which would be in the public interest as opposed to just making a few of us snort and laugh at celebrities' bums. It's just that the case for real investigative journalism would be so much clearer without a fog of intrusive garbage clouding our perceptions of what newspapers are there to do, and what they want to sell us.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
Photo: Getty Images
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How can Britain become a nation of homeowners?

David Cameron must unlock the spirit of his postwar predecessors to get the housing market back on track. 

In the 1955 election, Anthony Eden described turning Britain into a “property-owning democracy” as his – and by extension, the Conservative Party’s – overarching mission.

60 years later, what’s changed? Then, as now, an Old Etonian sits in Downing Street. Then, as now, Labour are badly riven between left and right, with their last stay in government widely believed – by their activists at least – to have been a disappointment. Then as now, few commentators seriously believe the Tories will be out of power any time soon.

But as for a property-owning democracy? That’s going less well.

When Eden won in 1955, around a third of people owned their own homes. By the time the Conservative government gave way to Harold Wilson in 1964, 42 per cent of households were owner-occupiers.

That kicked off a long period – from the mid-50s right until the fall of the Berlin Wall – in which home ownership increased, before staying roughly flat at 70 per cent of the population from 1991 to 2001.

But over the course of the next decade, for the first time in over a hundred years, the proportion of owner-occupiers went to into reverse. Just 64 percent of households were owner-occupier in 2011. No-one seriously believes that number will have gone anywhere other than down by the time of the next census in 2021. Most troublingly, in London – which, for the most part, gives us a fairly accurate idea of what the demographics of Britain as a whole will be in 30 years’ time – more than half of households are now renters.

What’s gone wrong?

In short, property prices have shot out of reach of increasing numbers of people. The British housing market increasingly gets a failing grade at “Social Contract 101”: could someone, without a backstop of parental or family capital, entering the workforce today, working full-time, seriously hope to retire in 50 years in their own home with their mortgage paid off?

It’s useful to compare and contrast the policy levers of those two Old Etonians, Eden and Cameron. Cameron, so far, has favoured demand-side solutions: Help to Buy and the new Help to Buy ISA.

To take the second, newer of those two policy innovations first: the Help to Buy ISA. Does it work?

Well, if you are a pre-existing saver – you can’t use the Help to Buy ISA for another tax year. And you have to stop putting money into any existing ISAs. So anyone putting a little aside at the moment – not going to feel the benefit of a Help to Buy ISA.

And anyone solely reliant on a Help to Buy ISA – the most you can benefit from, if you are single, it is an extra three grand from the government. This is not going to shift any houses any time soon.

What it is is a bung for the only working-age demographic to have done well out of the Coalition: dual-earner couples with no children earning above average income.

What about Help to Buy itself? At the margins, Help to Buy is helping some people achieve completions – while driving up the big disincentive to home ownership in the shape of prices – and creating sub-prime style risks for the taxpayer in future.

Eden, in contrast, preferred supply-side policies: his government, like every peacetime government from Baldwin until Thatcher’s it was a housebuilding government.

Why are house prices so high? Because there aren’t enough of them. The sector is over-regulated, underprovided, there isn’t enough housing either for social lets or for buyers. And until today’s Conservatives rediscover the spirit of Eden, that is unlikely to change.

I was at a Conservative party fringe (I was on the far left, both in terms of seating and politics).This is what I said, minus the ums, the ahs, and the moment my screensaver kicked in.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.