February 2, 2008

Paparazzi admit pursuit of Britney has gone too far

Imagine the scene: a psychiatrist is urgently called to the home of a severely disturbed young woman.

Together, the psychiatrist and the family decide to take her to hospital – without her consent – for a mental health evaluation. A specialist unit of the local police is called to facilitate the journey. Traumatic enough, one might think.

Except that when the young woman in question is Britney Spears, the nightmare has only just begun. The 26-year-old star was indeed admitted to the University of California Medical Centre in Los Angeles in the early hours of Thursday morning – the latest in a long series of deeply troubling episodes involving her wayward behaviour, her young children, her ex-husband and a whole retinue of relatives and hangers-on.

What made it a whole lot worse, though, was that the paparazzi pack got wind of the psychiatrist's late-night visit. By the time everyone was ready to move out of the house – a gated home near the top of Coldwater Canyon in the Hollywood Hills – the area was swarming with about 200 photographers and television camera operators.

TV helicopters swooped overhead. The Los Angeles police were forced to carry out an evacuation plan worthy of a military campaign – guarding the house against a possible paparazzi invasion, setting up a complicated series of roadblocks to throw the photographers off the trail, and blacking the windows in the ambulance so Britney could experience her trauma as privately as possible.

The whole operation lasted hours and cost an estimated $25,000 (£12,600) – money the police would much rather have spend on something else.

Last night it was reported that an LA court had taken possession of her estate "due to mental health issues". The rapid downward spiral of Britney Spears' life marks perhaps the lowest watermark in our tabloid culture – an entire industry feeding off the misery of a former teenage idol turned very public basket-case. A business publication called Portfolio estimated a few days ago that the "Britney-Industrial Complex" is worth about $120m a year to the US economy – everything from the fees generated by her pictures to the boost in circulation, as much as one-third more, enjoyed by publications who put her on the cover.

In the increasingly Wild West atmosphere of Hollywood's paparazzi agencies, she alone currently accounts for as much as 30 per cent of total revenues.

Much of this has gone unquestioned, outside of some high-minded media discussion forums at the Los Angeles Times.

Now, though, even some of the photographers who make their living chronicling every step of her meltdown are beginning to examine their consciences, and their professional ethics. One British photographer based in Los Angeles, Nick Stern, became perhaps the first to make a public stand when he quit his job with the Splash news agency a few days ago because he could not bring himself to cover Britney another day longer.

"The Britney story is no longer about Britney," he said. "It's the media circus surrounding her... It's not journalism. Sooner or later, someone's going to get killed. Possibly Britney herself."

Stern said he could no longer stomach the sheer aggression of the pack – many of whom have no photographic training and, he said, include members of street gangs treating the trade in Britney snapshots as a criminal racket.

"I've heard stories of fights, of car tyres being slashed, or cars being blocked in and vehicles jumping lights, all in the name of getting a picture," he said.

"It's now acceptable for paparazzi to drive the wrong way down a street in pursuit of Britney." Stern, who moved to Los Angeles last August following several years at the head of his own agency, First News, said he had no objection to celebrity journalism.

He made a fine living from it, selling mainly to the lower end of the British newspaper market, and felt the press corps were unfairly blamed for the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997. Nor does he have any particular beef with Splash, who he said were "one of the more honourable professional employers out here".

He has now joined another agency, Bauer Griffin.

The Britney circus, though, has turned his stomach. "If there's a story concerning Britney that's justified, that's great," he said. "But it's gone way beyond that... She has real psychological problems."

A few months ago, those problems extended to her shaving her head or appearing at nightclubs without any underwear on.

A month ago, though, she refused to hand over her sons Sean Preston, two, and Jayden James, one, to her ex husband Kevin Federline, 29, and then locked herself in a bathroom.

That prompted a day-long involuntary hospitalisation. More recently, she was spotted repeatedly driving past a courthouse where custody hearings about her children were under way, but not stopping to go in.

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