The media column - Why politicians deserve it
I welcome newspapers exposing the affairs of politicians. If they think we ought to know of their "h
Will they behave themselves at the World Cup in Germany next month? I refer not to the English fans but to the English journalists who, by all accounts, are at least as much feared abroad.
Luiz Felipe (Phil) Scolari, the former Brazil coach who is now with Portugal, does not strike me as being afraid of anybody. So I am sceptical about claims that he turned down the job of managing the England team because he was worried about our red tops. Nevertheless, a glance at their offerings on 28 April, the day after he had been revealed as the Football Association's choice, would surely have confirmed any forebodings.
"The Mystic Meg of football," jeered the Sun. He had "secretly met with astrologers" before picking the Brazil squad in 2002. The players had to hold hands with injured team-mates to "heal" them. Worse, under the headline "Gimme £5m", the Sun said he wanted double what the FA had offered.
By all accounts, Scolari is what the papers call "a family man". This didn't stop the red tops dredging up supposedly scandalous facts. He had "stolen" the woman who became his wife from his best friend. Now, reported the Express, she "picks the team". In any case, Scolari is a foreigner. He comes from a "superstitious" country, explained the Sun, as though no English footballer had ever possessed a "lucky" boot. The same paper accused him, in a leader, of being a carpetbagger.
In other countries, the press can be savage with losers, but the criticism is largely about what happens on the pitch. Here, managers and players are subject to intense media scrutiny in all aspects of their lives. They have to watch their words as closely as politicians, as one England manager, Glenn Hoddle, discovered when he made a foolish comment about the disabled.
I welcome newspapers exposing the affairs of politicians such as John Prescott. Nearly all male MPs use their wives as publicity props; Prescott has recently issued a constituency newsletter that shows him smiling in his garden with an arm around his wife. If politicians think we ought to know of their "happy" marriages, why shouldn't we be told of their adulteries?
But no football manager ever used his wife in his job application, and it would be thought peculiar if he did so. There is no reason whatever why coaches' private lives should be public knowledge - unless they steal players' wives or attempt homosexual molestation.
Whenever a newspaper breaks the news of a ministerial scandal, all sorts of odd rumours about its provenance circulate, usually from the paper's rivals. In the case of the Mirror's scoop on Prescott's affair with Tracey Temple, the allegation is that it was leaked in order to deflect the heat from the Home Secretary, Charles Clarke. This tale reached even the Daily Telegraph leader column last Monday. We journalists love conspiracy theories, but this one is preposterous.
One of the most amusing aspects of the Prescott affair has been the Mirror's own embarrassment. Prescott is as old Labour as you can get and, therefore, a politician the Mirror and its readers would normally admire. The paper used the "it just shows he's more human than the rest of them" defence even as it sprang the story on a startled world. The front-page picture, of a joyful Prescott with his arm around a joyful Temple, under the caption "Cuddle", suggested true romance, rather than the alcohol-induced lust that pictures on the inside pages portrayed. I gather the paper held back some of the more discreditable details. For the past week, it has tried to convince readers that Prescott's behaviour doesn't really matter.
Senior Mirror sources assure me that Temple's boyfriend - "a trucker", as the Sun put it, in the snobbish tone that seems acceptable only in mass-circulation papers - really did approach the news desk with the evidence. I believe them. A Blairite leaker would have risked the Mirror presenting the story as an attempt by soulless apparatchiks to overthrow a virile, working-class hero. Even new Labour wouldn't be that stupid.
While we're on adultery, consider the following curious sequence of events. On 27 April, Edwina Currie wrote in the London Evening Standard about her "love affair with John Major when he was prime minister". Or so it seemed. There had been a subbing error; the affair ended before Major entered No 10. That evening, BBC Ten O'Clock News made the same error. At the end of the bulletin, it was solemnly corrected by Huw Edwards, the newsreader. Next day, the Standard slyly referred to the BBC's correction in its diary.
I suspect Major watches BBC news but doesn't read the Standard. But why was he anxious to have the mistake so promptly corrected? It wouldn't be - would it? - because he is worried that, more than a decade ago, he won an out-of-court libel settlement when this magazine falsely alleged that he did commit adultery while PM, albeit with another woman.