British media plumbs new depths.jpg

British media plumbs new depths

THE MARRIAGE of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills has collapsed, amid a welter of media speculation about a custody battle and lucrative divorce settlement.

Sky News devoted most of its afternoon coverage to the break-up, on the day the couple announced their separation, interviewing divorce lawyers, nosey tabloid journalists and show business commentators. Presenters salivated at the unfolding events, informing us, ad nauseam, that McCartney was worth 825 million pounds and that, naively, he had failed to sign a pre-nuptial agreement.

Jubilant divorce lawyers announced that this was likely to be the biggest settlement of all times and Heather could pocket 200 million quid – no problem. Tabloid hacks also appeared, parading exclusive scoops on the break-up. You felt that journalists, their pens long since dipped in poisonous ink, had been preparing the marriage’s obituary for some time.

Hardly anyone – presenters, lawyers or gossip writers – expressed, even en passant, any sadness at the break-up of a marriage involving a two-year-old daughter. Nobody expressed sympathy for Paul McCartney – who thought he had found happiness after the premature death of his first wife, Linda, in 1998 – or for Heather Mills, who, as an amputee victim, has endured her own trauma.

Instead, McCartney was berated for his foolishness in not preparing a ‘prenup’. Here, one gets an insight into the cynicism of the press. The marriage, according to the tabloids, was bound to fail, wasn’t it? Young blonde bimbo meets ageing Beatle billionaire – what did you expect? And the constant reference to his fortune is meant to make us mere mortals feel better about ourselves. “All that money didn’t do them any good, did it?” was the desired reaction in pubs up and down the country.

Character assassination

But the television coverage paled when set against the tabloid venom against Heather Mills. The press branded her as a ‘gold-digger’, self-serving publicist and bad-tempered bully. The Sun, the so-called ‘barometer’ of British public opinion (and the acme of bad taste), published a cartoon showing Heather Mills’ artificial leg running out of a dressing room, shouting “I can’t stand her either – I’m off too!”

Not that the press had started their campaign against Heather Mills when the couple separated. In the past, the press had accused her of embellishing and exaggerating aspects of her life story in the name of self-promotion. Now, almost without exception, they also blamed her for the marriage break-up.

I cannot comment on Heather Mills’ honesty and I was not privy to their marriage. More importantly, neither were the press. But the tabloids’ salacious muckraking and unhealthy curiosity reveals, once again, how low they will stoop. Even post-Diana, the British press continue their dirty business, devoid of scruples or self-censorship, oblivious to the damage they cause and the malleability of their readers.

My point here is not to defend Heather Mills. Neither do I subscribe to the point of view, which McCartney set out on his website, that the press – or the media spotlight – was to blame for the break-up itself. In addition, the innumerable character testimonials and glowing endorsements on Heather Mills’ website – often rebuttals against past criticism and alleged media misrepresentations – were probably best left unsaid, since they conveyed an impression of insecurity and self-obsession. Intangibly, the British public did not warm to her – as we have been told many times – but that is no excuse for the press to kick her while she’s down.

McCartney, a mega-famous billionaire and iconic figure, is such a God in the minds of the public that any young woman marrying him would stand accused of gold digging. In that respect, they have made life very difficult for McCartney himself. If he meets someone else in the future, she would have to be extremely wealthy and famous in her own right or face similar allegations. The press will never let up – they hunt their quarry to the end, even if it means driving Heather Mills to a breakdown, or worse. Then, and only then, The Sun would no doubt inform us, in a massive guilt-ridden catharsis, that poor Heather was misunderstood, that she was a prodigious and big-hearted charity worker and a courageous fighter against adversity. In that respect, at least, the British press is so wretchedly predictable.

• Gabriel can be contacted via e-mail at [email protected]

By Gabriel Hershman