Scoundrels, philanderers and politicians behaving badly

Political Scandal: Power and visibility in the media age by John B Thompson (Polity Press, £14.99)
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There is no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintance with Dr John Thompson, the author of this cool, shrewd and revealing exposé of the apparatus of scandal. I admit that I did once encounter him on a station platform. But I did not have dinner with him on 9 September, and the fact that his publisher, Polity, happens to be publishing my forthcoming book (entitled Napoleon the Novelist, since you ask) is pure coincidence. I shall take the sword of truth and the trusty shield of stout denial to any sleaze-obsessed journalists who say otherwise.

There is no impropriety whatsoever in my acquaintance with Dr John Thompson, the author of this cool, shrewd and revealing exposé of the apparatus of scandal. I admit that I did once encounter him on a station platform. But I did not have dinner with him on 9 September, and the fact that his publisher, Polity, happens to be publishing my forthcoming book (entitled Napoleon the Novelist, since you ask) is pure coincidence. I shall take the sword of truth and the trusty shield of stout denial to any sleaze-obsessed journalists who say otherwise.

In a climate of almost perpetual moral indignation, there is an undeniable frisson to reading a text on scandal that does not sermonise and denounce dodgy politicians and/or unscrupulous muckrakers. Thompson's work is virtually a compact encyclopedia of modern scandal, but it is above all an overarching theory of the genre, keeping a detached but sympathetic distance from heroes, clowns and victims alike.

Skandalon first reached us via that classic scandal-sheet the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. We don't need to read as far as David and Bathsheba; the opening of Genesis furnishes us with the paradigm of sin, denial, exposure and fall from grace. In the modern age, Thompson argues, "scandals are struggles over symbolic power in which reputation and trust are at stake". But as a Cambridge social scientist, he would say that, wouldn't he?

The crux is that the revelation of misbehaviour and the strategies for covering-up are an integral part of the drama, perhaps the main event. So-called second-order transgressions - the business of lies and evasions - tend ultimately to take precedence over actual happenings.

Particular cases - from Profumo through Watergate to the latest semen-stained sensation, stitching together money, sex and power in an eternal triangle - are seen to flow from the generic condition of "mediated visibility": the inevitable conflict of publicity-dependent politicians and media scoop-hounds. This approach gives a redeemingly platonic spin to miscellaneous imbroglios. Which is appropriate, considering that the same adjective is frequently (and misleadingly) applied to so many of the relationships referred to in this book.

Paradoxically, the French, seemingly immune to amorous scandal (witness Mitterrand's harem), have also provided the sharpest tools for analysing it. Emile Durkheim pointed out that, even in a society of saints, there would be the same proportion of sinners because standards would go up. Even more to the point is Henri Bergson's theory that laughter is the revenge of the collective on adventurous individuals. The true scandal quickly becomes a global joke, like the poll of a thousand women who were asked what they thought about the idea of having sex with the president; 60 per cent replied: "Never again!"

Thompson's book is indispensable reading for politicians seeking, for once, to steer clear of scandal or to find a consolation for their discomfort. I fear that Jeffrey Archer, however, may well be consulting his lawyers after being relegated to a footnote. We should all come clean, though, and admit that we have an abiding weakness for scoundrels and philanderers. Even more disgraceful, politicians seem driven to invite scandal, as if they actually want to be caught with their trousers down in a moment of madness or - in the case of Kennedy and Clinton - many such moments.

Personally, I have a deep suspicion of anyone not thoroughly mired in scandal. The shining exception is John Thompson. Not only has he written an illuminating book; he is by all accounts (since I don't know him personally) an excellent fellow and a fine academic. And I can definitely deny that I saw him a couple of months back in the company of a fragrant young woman capable of causing a critical lapse of judgement.

(John, will this do? Could we discuss my mortage? At the Ritz?)

The reviewer leads a blameless life teaching French at Cambridge

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