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20 April 2011updated 17 Jan 2012 6:01am

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

By Steven Baxter

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.

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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.

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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.