Moments of madness

'Hour after hour we waited for news: some fresh titbit about the couple, a public figure distancing himself, a twitch in the net curtains'

CECIL PARKINSON. The words summon up a face, a quiff, a husky voice and ... a scandal. Can you remember what it was about? He had an affair with a woman, Sara Keays; she became pregnant; he had to resign. Can you remember much else about it? Probably not.

From this distance the Keays affair seems insignificant and ridiculous. Yet for a week in 1983 the country talked of little else but the relationship and whether or when he should go. Hour by hour we waited for news: another titbit about the liaison with Ms Keays, another minister discreetly distancing himself, another twitch of the curtains at the Parkinson house in Potters Bar. After agonising days of speculation, came the drama of a bitter press interview from Keays, timed to spoil the opening of the Tory party conference. And Parkinson resigned.

Do you remember Tim Yeo? Another unfaithful Tory minister, another resignation. In 1993 the married Mr Yeo fathered a child out of wedlock. The story broke soon after the Major government's "back to basics" initiative and there were calls for Yeo to resign ("Off Yeo Go!"). He refused, received the support of the prime minister and a week later was out.

It may be difficult to remember much about the affair now, but at the time there was no escaping it. The Times carried 59 stories about it, the Independent 40. Eight Guardian commentators wrote a total of 10 pieces between them, including Germaine Greer who said Mr Yeo should have used a condom. Newsnight and the Today programme were no less thorough.

The point of dragging all this up again is not to show that there is nothing new in the sort of brouhaha that has swamped Ron Davies and Nick Brown, but to suggest that these events are little more than moments of frenzy. One week normally sensible members of the public are clamouring to know everything down to the colour of the sheets; the next they can't remember why they cared.

By tradition the errant minister exits lamenting the "moment of madness" that has cost him his job, but in truth it is not he who is mad, but all of us (or very nearly all). Not only are we capricious and forgetful about these scandals, we also throw away our moral ruler while they last, losing the ability to measure what is important and what is not, what is fair and what is not. No one has died, no high crime or misdemeanour has been committed, no public money has been mis-spent and no influence has been abused; in short these are matters of no public importance whatsoever. And yet for a brief spell we fling ourselves into an orgy of lubricous disclosure and vacuous comment.

Look at the arguments we swallow in these moments. If there is a possibility that the minister has told a lie then he may be fundamentally untrustworthy and so unfit to hold public office. If he has done something in his private life which is inconsistent with his own or his party's public statements then he maybe a hypocrite and therefore unfit to hold public office. If he has exposed himself to the danger of blackmail then (regrettably) he may no longer be trusted with public office. If he has offended against public morals he may have to go, because we have the right to expect the highest personal standards from those who govern us. If there is a risk that any one of these things may have happened, then the public have the right to know and to study all the details, no matter how intimate, so that we may make up our own minds.

This is nonsense. Is there anyone in this country, new-born babes aside, who has never told a lie, never made a mistake, always matched word with deed and always satisfied the moral demands of others? Of course not. And if a man could be blackmailed for doing any of these things then it is the public opinion he fears that is hypocritical. Yet when the scandal frenzy is in full spate, normally sensible people may be heard pressing these arguments, or variants of them. And in that moment they genuinely believe what they are saying.

Think about the Ron Davies case. In terms of these arguments, what did we need to know? The story only broke after he had resigned from the Cabinet and there has never been any question of him being charged with a crime, so our democracy was not exactly in danger. The only unfinished business was his reluctance to abandon his candidacy for first minister of Wales, which might perhaps have justified some questions from Welsh people.

Our need to know more had nothing to do with the public interest. It was a matter of naked curiosity, spite, the thrill of the chase and the schadenfreude that accompanies the humbling of the powerful. Now that we know so much more about Mr Davies what does it tell us? The story of a vulnerable homosexual man's worst nightmare. Great telly, great reading.

Surely we are not so depraved as this, at least not normally. It is as though a great machine exists in public life which, at a signal, whisks us off our feet and rushes us at electrifying speed along a twisting track of revelation and denial, past the intimate details of somebody else's tragedy and on to the thrilling, terrible climax of condemnation and resignation before depositing us, tired and sated, back in the humdrum world. For the duration, all rational thought is suspended. When you've done it once, you want another ride.

For many people there is such a machine; it's called the media, and its operators are the journalists who hunt down and deliver these stories. When the big story breaks the papers, television and radio pile in. Any editor knows the rigmarole: send people to doorstep the minister and his family; set others on his background and friends, looking for previous indiscretions or "character problems"; set still more on the mistress/boyfriend, possibly offering money; get comment and reaction from his party and his opponents; find out what he does with his income, where he goes for his holidays, how much his house is worth, and go through the cuttings looking for every opinion he has expressed and every vote he has cast. Somewhere you are bound to turn up the single embarrassing fact or quote which will provide the top of the next day's coverage.

Meanwhile get your columnists and opinionators to work (comment is cheaper than investigation) and tell them it doesn't matter what they say so long as they are as strident as possible - "The arrogance of power", "Spare us these women who stand by their husbands", "A government of moral pygmies", "In the name of God, go!"

The formula is well-tried and successful, as are the public interest pretexts - lies, hypocrisy, risk of blackmail - which invariably come as an afterthought (David Mellor's love-life was made public, believe it or not, on the grounds that his antics in bed were leaving him too tired to perform his ministerial duties properly). And if your first phase justification wears thin there is always a second phase, which sounds like this: we are writing about this because people say the minister must resign. Why are they saying that? Because he has become a liability to the government. Why is he a liability? Because we won't stop writing about him.

The mechanics are ruthlessly efficient. Journalists on the doorstep, under pressure to produce a story, will create one from the comment of a milkman, a local publican or an incautious friend. The hourly news bulletins, desperate for a fresh "top", will make the most of the smallest development. And sooner or later somebody will break cover, somebody will crack under the pressure and provocation or some malicious person will take advantage. Human misfortune makes good copy, from whatever angle you view it.

And at the epicentre there is always human misfortune, broken or strained marriages, loneliness and desperation, regret and shame, all exaggerated by the external pressure until it becomes the stuff of soap opera. That is why it is so fascinating, so compelling and so cruel.

But it is a mistake to blame all this on the media. Certainly when there is a feeding frenzy the journalists enjoy the thrill as much as anyone. But they also serve as waiters, making it possible for their hungry readers and viewers to join the feast.

American journalists speak these days of the "watercooler test". How do you decide what is the big story of the day? You look for what ordinary people in offices talk about when they converge for a drink and a chat. That story is never welfare reform or Hurricane Mitch. It is about public figures and their words and deeds.

I used to be deputy editor of this paper and I have some idea what it is like to try to compose a front page at the height of one of these scandals. I was not immune to those feelings of curiosity and schadenfreude, and to the excitement of a developing story, nor was I in any doubt about how competitive the market was. Just like the tabloids, broadsheet papers have to try to attract readers from the news-stand. So in a weekend when all the papers have a variant of "Minister confesses gay fling to Blair" I am afraid I would not have the will or the courage to suggest ignoring the story. That may be its true moral merit - it is simply not important - but I know that most readers would be curious, and would prefer to buy a paper that promised to satisfy their curiosity. Nor do I believe that reporting the story "tastefully" amounts to a higher form of journalism. All this probably makes me a coward, but then I know the price of courage. I worked on the Independent in the days in the 1980s when it had a policy of ignoring royal stories; this won us high-minded praise but undoubtedly cost us readers. Once the royal marriages started to fall apart the policy could no longer be sustained.

I know that there are many people who say they would rather not be told about the background to Ron Davies's departure or Nick Brown's "confession"; I do not doubt that there are some who actually mean it, who, even when the excitement was at its height, wanted to turn their backs in horror. I admire them, but I suspect their combined buying power could not begin to sustain a national newspaper. The rest of us, public and media, just carry on dancing our undignified tango.

We are not naturally stupid, or hypocritical, or cruel. In our right minds we are none of these things. But every now and then, it seems, we take leave of our right minds and suspend our critical faculties to ride the monstrous scandal machine and savour the thrill of watching someone else's misfortune unravelling in prime time and on page one. These are our moments of madness.

scandal: A brief history

War minister shock

(John Profumo) Daily Express, March 1963

MP and guardsman accused. Junior minister on 'offence in park' charges

(Ian Harvey) Daily Express, Nov 1958

Girls and drugs. Private sex and public concern

(Lord Lambton) Daily Mirror, May 1973

I brushed PC's thigh

(Keith Hampson) Sun, Oct 1984

Archer quits over payment to vice girl

(Jeffrey Archer) Daily Mirror, Oct 1986

My sex orgy by MP. Gorgeous George: I bonked for Britain

(George Galloway) Daily Star, Sept 1987

Mystery of naked MP and girl in Commons

(Labour's Ron Brown) Sun, May 1988

It's Paddy Pantsdown!

(Paddy Ashdown) Sun, Feb 1992

Toe job to no job

(David Mellor) Sun, Sept 1992

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes minister!

(Steven Norris) Sunday Times Oct 1993

Tory MP dies in kinky sex act

(Stephen Milligan) Daily Mirror, Feb 1994

The Beast of Legover

(Dennis Skinner) News of the World, Feb 1994

Tory MP, the tycoon and the Sunday school teacher

(Richard Spring) NoW, April 1994

Oh No! Yeo has second love child

(Tim Yeo) The People, January 1995

Laughing all the way to the bonk

(Rupert Pennant-Rea, deputy governor of the Bank of England) Mirror, March 1995

Ron's two gay sex acts on Common

(Ron Davies) Sun, November 1998

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