Last Monday the Sun carried two stories on its front page, one about Kate Moss, the other about Andrew (Freddie) Flintoff. They had been the most talked-about personalities of the preceding week, and both are supposedly role models for the young. One had imbibed the drug of her choice in a private place, but pictures taken secretly on a mobile phone went to the Daily Mirror. The other had imbibed the drug of his choice in a night-long binge, publicly boasted of his prodigious intake, and paraded before millions on TV and in the streets with slurred speech and unsteady gait.
The Sun presented Moss and Flintoff in different lights, as the papers had done all week. One was a "coke-snorting" cow, the other a loveable "Ashes hero" who had celebrated England's cricket triumph in time-honoured style, with champagne, lager and so on. One had just dumped her lover - who also takes drugs - and been exposed in the News of the World the previous day for "lesbian romps". The other had been "bowled over" by a scan of his new baby and continued to boast to the Sun of how he "drank and drank and drank".
Despite the intriguing parallels, the papers reported the two stories as though they were on different planets. Only a few commentators dared to raise questions. One or two contrasted the papers' attitudes to drunken cricketers and drunken footballers. The Guardian's newly shrunk g2 (a cute little thing) asked a Bristol professor about the dangers of drinking so much booze. He assured us that Flintoff was big enough to take drink without lasting ill-effects, but worried he might fall over and hurt himself (you need a professor to think of that). Janet Street-Porter in the Independent on Sunday explained that Moss is "fun" and "super-bright" and that everybody in the media snorts coke anyway.
You can take the arguments about Moss and Flintoff, coke and alcohol for a ride in your head until it spins. You can compare the physical, mental and social effects of the two drugs, the likelihood that either will lead to addiction, the extent to which indulgence might make Britain's leading fashion model incapable of doing her job and Britain's leading cricketer incapable of doing his. You can, as Cristina Odone did in the Observer, suggest that we all secretly envy Moss because we think fashion modelling is easy, while we know damn well that beating the Aussies at cricket is hard work. You can wonder whether Moss's successful recent claim for libel against the Sunday Mirror - over allegations that she had collapsed in a coke-induced coma in Barcelona in 2001 - explains the press vindictiveness. You can rail, like Street-Porter, against media hypocrisy.
But it's all a waste of time. For the moment, Flintoff is a hero who may win more Test matches for England. At 31, Moss is a fashion model with "bony legs" (Tony Parsons in the Mirror) whose best days are behind her. That is the nature of celebrity. The newspapers don't do nuance.
Moss and Flintoff will have to take what's coming to them. Both are rich because of their commercial value to advertisers and sponsors. If they don't want press attention they should refuse the deals. But Flintoff should reflect that celebrity is always on a knife-edge. On 16 September, while it ran a double-page spread on "Cocaine Kate", the Daily Mail devoted page 3 to a story about Flintoff's £1.5m new home.
The house, the Mail observed ominously, "would not look out of place in an episode of Footballers' Wives", and his new neighbours will indeed include a Premiership footballer, Blackburn's Paul Dickov. The Mail still had Flintoff as "England's cricketing hero" while the footballers were "notoriously overpaid". But if I were him, I'd treat it as a warning shot across the bows.
How would Tony Blair have liked the BBC to cover Hurricane Katrina? The PM reportedly told Rupert Murdoch that the corporation's coverage was "full of hatred of America" and "gloating". He presumably anticipated a sympathetic Murdoch ear.
The Times (3 September) had "a president who strummed while a city drowned". The Sunday Times (4 September) reported how "the world's superpower reacted as if asleep" and Americans had "suffered generations of poor governance". I don't think the PM would care for that kind of thing. But Murdoch doesn't bother much about the pointy-heads on his broadsheets. If you want to know what he thinks, read the Sun, particularly its leader on 1 September. "A great human tragedy has unfolded . . . But already President Bush is
galvanising his country's considerable resources . . . America may not have been able to stop Katrina's advance. But no country is better placed to deal with her deadly legacy."
If the BBC wants to stay on the right side of No 10, that is the tone to adopt.
This column was all at sixes and fives last week. The newly designed Guardian, I wrote, had six columns. It has five, as any fool can see. Apologies.