If it doesn’t affect national security it’s not a sex scandal
I owe my sex education to Christine Keeler. Not directly of course: I was eleven years old at the time the Profumo scandal convulsed Britain in 1963.
I was on a fishing holiday with my father, in a big house in the north of Scotland shared with two other families, including several teenage boys and girls.
In between tying flies and tramping across the heather, everyone – the adults and the teenagers – seemed to have only one topic of conversation, and Christine Keeler was it.
My seven-year-old sister and I were the only ones unable to keep up. I remember chiefly the frustration of hearing jokes and not being able to understand the punchlines.
But over the course of a week, and especially later when we got back to London and I was able to sneak a look at the newspapers, I started to get the gist.
Keeler was a call-girl. Once I’d worked out what that meant, I could start to piece together the rest. She’d been sleeping with a man called John Profumo. He was the Secretary of State for War in the Conservative Government of Harold Macmillan.
But Christine had also been sleeping with the Soviet military attache in London, Yevgeny Ivanov. Was he using her to prise Britain’s nuclear secrets out of the Minister as pillow-talk?
The possibility was high in the minds of Britain’s security agency MI5. The affair led to the suicide of Christine Keeler’s friend, and society pimp, Stephen Ward.
He died in St Stephen’s Hospital in London’s Fulham Road: it was at the end of our street, and I remember seeing the pack of Fleet Street reporters and photographers gathered outside.
But the scandal also claimed the political career of Mr Profumo – who lived out the rest of his life as a charity worker – and probably contributed to the illness and resignation of the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, later in the year.
Now that’s a political sex scandal.
Even in British politics, where repressed sexuality has been a feature of politics as long as there have been expensive boys’ boarding-schools, there has never quite been anything to match it. Yes, there was Lord Lambton, a junior Defence Minister caught sleeping with prostitutes and forced to resign in 1973.
The Thorpe Affair was admittedly spectacular: the leader of the Liberal Party. Jeremy Thorpe, accused of hiring a hit-man to shoot his homosexual lover Norman Scott. But, as they say ‘nothing was ever proved’: a result which Peter Cook hilariously blamed on the judge’s summing-up.
If you think Peter Cook’s impersonation of a judge far-fetched, look no farther than the actual summing-up in the case of Jeffrey Archer, novelist and Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, vs The Daily Star, which had accused him of paying a prostitute to go abroad (to silence her). The judge is instructing the jury on the credibility of Mr Archer’s wife:
“Remember Mary Archer in the witness-box. Your vision of her probably will never disappear. Has she elegance? Has she fragrance? Would she have, without the strain of this trial, radiance? How would she appeal? Has she had a happy married life? Has she been able to enjoy, rather than endure, her husband Jeffrey?”
And when considering Archer himself:
“Is he in need of cold, unloving, rubber-insulated sex in a seedy hotel round about quarter to one on a Tuesday morning after an evening at the Caprice?”
Archer won 500,000 pounds in damages: but twelve years later, he was proved to have perjured himself in the case, and sent to jail.
David Mellor was a Minister in John Major’s Government who had an affair with an actress. Er, that’s it ... except that he was the minister who had earlier told the press that they were “drinking in the Last Chance Saloon”, and that the actress’ press agent told the said press that Mellor made love wearing his Chelsea football strip. This was subsequently revealed to be a complete fabrication.
The tragicomedy continues with the tale of Stephen Milligan, another Major Government Minister. He was a former journalist, like me a former Brussels correspondent; one mutual friend once told me Milligan was the cleverest person he ever met. Not clever enough, however, to avoid death by auto-erotic asphyxiation, dressed in women’s stockings, tied up with bondage gear, an orange in his mouth and with a black plastic bag over his head.
It must be obvious by now what I’ve been leading up to.
Let me say that I do not know Mike Rann, beyond having interviewed him once or twice from our Adelaide studio, and I do not live in South Australia. I have no vested interest.
So when I say that I’m finding it difficult to understand why so many in that State are so fixated on the question of whether a man, single at the time, had an alleged affair with a woman who has never alleged that she was either paid or coerced, I am not pleading his side of the story.
Since Mr Rann has already declared his intention to sue for defamation, I don’t propose to discuss the rights and wrongs of the case; but I also doubt very much whether I should in any case.
The lessons I thought I’d learned as a London correspondent, that an affair becomes a scandal, and thus newsworthy, if it involves national security, or hypocrisy, or sexual shenanigans by someone who takes a high moral stance on sexual matters, just don’t seem to have applied here.
In my view, this isn’t a political scandal, it’s a media one. Australian journalists have tended to leave politicians’ private lives alone in the past.
They left Curtin and Chifley alone, and plenty of more recent political leaders have had the benefit of versions of the ‘rules’ I outlined above.
The rule may end after death - the headline “BILLY SNEDDEN DIED ON THE JOB” being a good example – but most political indiscretions get left alone.
I’ve always suspected that it was partly because of the libel laws, but also because few of us journalists have lived lives of saintly virtue, and people in glass houses ...
But honestly, if no laws have been breached, if there’s no hypocritical moralising in the politician’s background, and there’s no security implication, why is it any of our business? Shouldn’t we be judging our politicians on how they actually govern when we’ve elected them to do so?
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