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13 March 2006

The flimsier the fig leaf the better

By Brian Cathcart

Are you enjoying the Jowell affair? Have you had the rush? What did you feel? Outrage? Pity? Envy? Or do you still need a catharsis? Whatever has been going on these past few weeks it is less a matter of corruption than of emotion, and not Jowell’s emotions or even the emotions of the political class, but yours and mine. This is a national tribal ritual.

It is not ancient. I trace it back to 1983 and the “disgrace” of Cecil Parkinson. Stretching over three weeks or so, that was a juicy one, with the mass doorstepping of his home in Potters Bar, the red-eyed, loyal wife, the furious ex-mistress, the gloriously shifty ministerial public appearances and (Yes! Yes! Yes!) a down-in-flames resignation during the Tory party conference.

We had a hell of a time hanging around the photocopier, hammering out every issue and exploring every feeling thrown up by the wall-to-wall coverage. As passions swept the land (in case you’ve forgotten, the mistress had a baby and complained they had been dumped) a distinguished columnist asked why Cecil had not used a condom.

Since then the list has been long. David Mellor, Edwina Currie, Norman Lamont, Alan Clark, Michael Mates, Tim Yeo, Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer, Neil Hamilton, Peter Mandelson, Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers, Beverley Hughes, David Blunkett, David Blunkett: there are more, but they merge into one another.

A wise prime minister these days no doubt budgets for them, surveying his cabinet colleagues once in a while and thinking: “Some time soon one of them will be out. There will be a feeding frenzy for two or three weeks of course, but we have a Standard Operating Procedure for these things and it won’t hurt much. I wonder who I should bring in after it happens . . .”

Downing Street is not the only one with a Standard Operating Procedure. The press, the broadcasters and you and I, we all have set parts to play. I remember, in the case of Tim Yeo (1993), witnessing the part played by the chap who would find the public-interest pretext.

Before he turned up we had only two-thirds of a scandal. Yeo had had an affair out of wedlock and, again, there was a baby on the way. We were slurping up the rights and wrongs, but something was missing until up from the cuttings library came this chap, waving a piece of paper above his head. It showed that once, in some forgotten context, Yeo had uttered a sentence about the importance of the family. He was a hypocrite! Jubilation sweeps newsroom, nation rejoices, orgy continues.

Sometimes it’s a struggle (David Mellor’s supposed offence against the public interest was that his sex life was so exhausting it compromised his ability to do his day job), but that never matters. We all pretend the flimsiest fig leaf is adequate, because without it we couldn’t have the fun. We couldn’t watch usually composed public figures under extreme pressure; we couldn’t learn what sort of houses they live in, what kinds of families they have, what they get up to in private. We wouldn’t have our fix of outrage, pity or envy. We might even be left talking about the Education Bill.

Spoilsports may point this out now and again but we can’t hear them from inside the national orgasmatron. There is, however, a guilty aftertaste to our pleasure, and it shows in the way we soon bring the victims back, if not to the political front rank then into the media or the quango world. Then, as a bonus, our own forgiveness warms us.

What Jowell has done is not the cause of the current explosion of noise and newsprint. Her husband’s actions left her wounded and the herd seized her for its next human sacrifice. The Tories and the press stirred the fever – they are the priests, but the ceremony also needs worshippers. The emotion-hungry public plays its full part in this madness.

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