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  1. Politics
2 August 2016

Why it’s money, not sex, which causes political scandal today

People are no longer shocked by mistakes they can relate to, which means the modern-day political sex scandal is far overshadowed by misdemeanours involving tax or expenses.

By Stephanie Boland

Another day, another collective groan in the New Statesman office. A politician has once again done something spectacularly, needlessly ill-advised. Worse still: he’s a (suspended) Labour politician. Twitter is lighting up, and The Sun has found pictures of the woman in question wearing a low-cut dress to punctuate its cheerily salacious write-up.

It’s a good time to talk about scandal, because two news stories have coincided that raise the question of how we engage with gossip.

The first is the scandal-hit MP: claims and lurid details hit the tabloids about Simon Danczuk, single at the time, having sex with a much younger woman (not a problem, necessarily, although great for the tabloids) in his constituency office (ah).

The second is the revelation from the chief executive of the publishers behind the short-lived new newspaper, New Day (may it rest in peace), that readers do not necessarily want what they say they do.

Well, I could have told you that. Principle one of online journalism: readers lie. I’m rarely honest with myself about whether I’d rather have fruit after dinner or a hunking great slice of Vienetta, so I don’t expect everyone to click on the foreign policy reporting they say the press should cover more of when there’s a story about sex next to it.

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There’s often a split between the sort of culture we’d like to live in and the choices we make in the one we actually live in, and plenty of things that we firmly believe aren’t in the public interest become pretty interesting once they’ve been delved into anyway.

Psychologist Susan Kolod has named varying reasons we enjoy scandal, from titillation at other’s rule-breaking to enjoying the righteous satisfaction of seeing someone else punished for their transgression.

But why are some scandals judged more harshly than others? Is it a matter of empathy, or something else?

Take affairs. Although I’ve definitely counselled friends that their cheating partners are irredeemable shits, unable to summon any integrity or commitment to their own choices, I’m also willing to accept that cheating is often the consequence of deep unhappiness rather than anything Machiavellian – fidelity is the last thing to go when a relationship breaks down, rather than the first. I suspect that most people, or at least most people who have not recently been cheated on, also, on some level, understand this.

When the revelation that a politician has had an affair breaks, then, it is not necessarily to an entirely unsympathetic public. (After all: surveys suggest anywhere between 20 per cent and 45 per cent of people will cheat on a partner at some point). While a serial cheater might garner less sympathy – although if it fits their public persona, as in the case of Boris Johnson, it still may not do much reputational damage – an affair is no longer likely to bring down a public figure, particularly if the information was obtained by distasteful means by the press. We can too easily imagine it happening to us.

But what about when we can’t? It seems that today’s career-ruining, or at least career-pausing, political scandals mostly involve politicians doing things that are not just immoral but unrelatable. David Cameron allegedly doing something obscene with a pig’s head? Well, hopefully not many of us have done that – but plenty of us have that one friend who did something notably vile while drunk at university, or on a particularly weird night out in town. John Whittingdale being embroiled in a “scandal” which, as my colleague Stephen Bush wrote at the time, essentially boiled down to “man has sex with woman”? Forget it.

But most of us don’t have the opportunity to pay parliamentary salaries to our sons, as the former Tory MP Derek Conway did, or claim tens of thousands of pounds in expenses for a home registered in our partner’s name, or any of the ridiculous receipts that were revealed during the 2009 expenses scandal. Most of us don’t have the wealth or opportunity to shuffle our money around for tax purposes. And nor do most of us have a job where we can be routinely tailed around the world by a friend who has previously lived rent-free in an expenses-paid flat, as was the case with Liam Fox MP and Adam Werrity.

We also can’t relate to the scenario of calling a policeman a “pleb” on Downing Street – a comment that lost Andrew Mitchell his position, even though in another contexts an off-the-cuff comment made in anger would likely have caused little trouble.

Of course, there’s also an important caveat about prejudice. It’s impossible to know if the former Welsh Secretary Ron Davies would have resigned his post if the person who had mugged him after meeting on Clapham Common had been a woman, or whether the former Tory MP Jerry Hayes’ affair with a younger man would have garnered so many column inches if Paul Stone had been Pauline. (But even then, some of the press wondered what all the fuss was about).

In fact, the reaction to political sex scandals can act as a reasonably good barometer of society’s sexual norms. There is also a more complex but morally meaningful side to “witch hunts”, particularly when young and potentially vulnerable women are involved, such as when Danczuk sent explicit messages to a teenager (though she wasn’t underage, she had initially contacted him to apply to work in his constituency office). These cases increasingly, and rightly, garner condemnation.

But by and large, public outcry comes not when a politician does something immoral, but when they abuse their position to do it. While a relatively high proportion of people will either be someone or know someone who has had an affair, or at least had an ill-advised fling, few get paid to tell the press about it. Likewise, even if office sex is a trope in popular culture, the idea of doing it in a taxpayer-funded office is less acceptable. While we don’t expect politicians to be superhuman, we do expect them to not mix their private lives with public money.

So is it about empathy, or about the responsibility we expect from our public servants? Doubtless our response is not homogeneous, and different newspapers – and individual readers – will continue to respond to scandal in different ways. But if circulation figures are anything to go by, the allure of scandal isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

After all: you clicked on this, didn’t you?