Stormy times. Source: canonsnapper (Via Flickr)
Unsafe Space

Scandal Reporting and the New Sleaze in British Politics

By Harry Heath

In an age of instant mass communication and the increased visibility of public figures as I focused on in last week’s Unsafe Space, scandal stories have become an extremely prevalent part of British news reporting. Coverage of scandals have historically brought down cabinet ministers, ruined the reputations of highly regarded public figures and left celebrities more than red faced. For their impact alone, the coverage of scandals should not be dismissed as mere tabloidisation or sensationalist media, but as a prominent part of public life in modern Britain.

Since the political scandals of the 1980s and 1990s that associated Britain’s Conservative government with hypocrisy and corruption, sleaze in its numerous forms has peaked and troughed; whenever it appears to have been eradicated, the next scandal has only ever been around the corner. Here we find ourselves once again, following the political turbulence of the referendum and a general election, awaiting the full details of another mass parliamentary scandal. This time, there appears to be evidence for the establishment of a culture of sexual harassment within Parliament that includes the transgressions of high-profile government figures.

As the academic Anthony King wrote in 1985, “sex, money, power: it is of little wonder that scandal has exerted, and no doubt will continue to exert, a degree of fascination for the popular imagination”. It is both sex and power that applies to the scandal in question on this occasion, and how the relations of authority have contributed to the occurring of certain sexual transgressions at the heart of British democracy. While there have been some in the past who have dismissed the reporting of sex scandals as the trivialisation of politics, we must be certain that the rejection of a culture of sleaze in the corridors of power is in all of our interests. We should be fascinated by recent revelations because of their democratic value, not in spite of their lack of it.

Insight into the characters of MPs is always in the public interests, meaning that one of the primary roles of the media is to uncover the questionable behaviour of those in power. We should not for one minute believe that we are being unrealistic or unfair in expecting the highest of standards from our elected representatives. We should not show sympathy to parliamentarians who have been exposed as abusing their power or feathering their own nests, as I am sure we shall not. There is however a more worrying factor that is how this week’s Westminster scandal represents a total erosion of the presumption of innocence.

We should be in consensus that no matter how likely or unlikely we believe the tales that are reported to be, we must accept that we are witnessing mass anonymous accusations against public figures who appear to have no right to reply. Nobody is debating the unsavoury nature of sleaze, even less so the horrifying nature of misogynistic harassment, but we cannot allow the accused to have both their reputations and careers destroyed purely because they are shouted down. While potential trends of institutional misdemeanours may be damaging to parties or Parliament in the short term, that trust can be rebuilt. For the individuals who are suspected of wrongdoings however, they shall have their lives irreversibly changed; this should be on the basis of evidence and not assumption.

This established, the infamous and seemingly ever-growing spreadsheet of “high libido MPs” in the Conservative provides us with resounding evidence for a plague of inappropriate conduct rooted in the heart of government. International Trade minister Mark Garnier is facing a media storm after he asked an assistant to purchase sex toys for him and now we have seen the first Cabinet minister to fall off the back of the harassment scandal in the form of the resignation of former Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, who said he may have “fallen below the highest standards that we require of the Armed Forces”.

As for Labour, they would be wise not to turn this into party-political point-scoring. One of their activists has recently claimed that she was raped at a party event and subsequently advised to keep quiet about it for her own good. Let’s not forget Keith Vaz’s questionable behaviour revealed by The Mirror last year; taking legal highs, offering to pay for cocaine and using Eastern European male prostitutes is hardly the model behaviour of the then Chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee. The party are also in the process of investigating the conduct of Jared O’Mara who I wrote of in detail last week.

It is true that we should be more than hesitant in appointing ourselves as judge, jury and executioner for speculation in the absence of evidence, there will be accusations made against public figures that are false. There is however a considerable weight of surfacing proof that indicates the existing systems of power within Britain’s political institutions allow and sometimes promote behaviour that we would have been wrong to assume existed in a different era. We now know where an acceptance of abuses of power can lead; typified at their most sinister by Jimmy Savile at the BBC and most recently Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood. It is for this reason that the increasing of transparency and a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment is the only approach moving forward, no matter what political scalps are taken as a result. As with the expenses scandal, Parliament has been told that if cannot police itself, public opinion and the media will happily do it for them.

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