The hounding of Huhne

The Daily Mail’s vilification of the Lib Dem minister is callous, unprincipled and hypocritical.

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Some might have thought there are greater issues at stake -- the Budget, perhaps, or US policy in Afghanistan, even the trivial matter of some football tournament that so bizarrely excites a nation of salad-dodgers and couch potatoes -- but for the fourth day in a row the Daily Mail has thought fit to devote space to the story of a middle-aged man caught having an affair.

I refer, naturally, to Chris Huhne, whose private life and that of his lover, Carina Trimingham, are now apparently a matter of deep public interest. How so? He has not broken any parliamentary rules, as his former cabinet colleague David Laws did. Is there any reason at all why we need know about this? According to today's Mail, it's all about "family values". Huhne was pictured with his family in some of his election literature, you see, and he once gave an interview in which he said he would never leave his wife.

The hypocrite! So that's what justifies drawing attention to the undoubted shock and misery of his wife, children and stepchildren, dwelling on it some more, and then moving on to the story of Carina's civil partner, complete with anonymous friend giving a breathless description of the new lovers' sex life. This is necessary, of course, for if the Mail were not to furnish us with these intimate details, we might miss the point.

What a load of utter rubbish. If the Mail was really concerned about Huhne's family, it would keep them out of it, as it would Carina's civil partner, rather than broadcasting to its millions of readers how "heartbroken" she is.

As for the charge of hypocrisy: it would be extremely odd, and invite all sorts of adverse comment, if a parliamentary candidate refused to allow pictures of his family to be printed these days. Indeed, their party spin doctors would almost certainly insist upon it.

Such personal details are about presenting candidates as ordinary people who can understand the concerns of ordinary voters -- most of whom belong to families of one sort or another -- rather than a statement insisting that they and everyone else should be kept to some kind of "back to basics" moral code.

The Mail knows this perfectly well. If the paper really believed in family values itself, one might assume that tolerance, forgiveness and compassion, virtues that most families find quite useful from time to time, would come into the process of deciding whether to print a story or not. But the Mail's version of family values is so judgemental that it probably thinks the Prodigal Son was an appalling scrounger who should never have been allowed back but sent packing "on 'is bike".

The continued coverage of this story by the Mail is prurience masquerading as principle, its outrage in fact a disgraceful delight in the tribulations of others, while adding to these troubles by digging for further "dirt". It is fake, it is phoney and it gives the lie to the paper's claims to stand for "decency". It does not, however, contradict the Mail's espousal of "traditional values" -- as hypocrisy is one of the most venerable of the lot.

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Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman