The foreigner it's OK to hate

Distaste for Fayed unites right and left, broadsheet and tabloid. He seems to confirm our prejudices
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The Independent Culture
IT HAS been fug-this and fug-that in all the smart newspapers recently as eminent, serious-minded journalists cluck with gleeful disapproval at the low life and high times of Mohamed al-Fayed, as described in Tom Bower's recent biography.

He comes on to young female staff, we are told. He flashes pounds 50 notes at them and takes them off to Paris. Comely new employees are given medical check-ups in which they are tested for intimate diseases. He bribes MPs. He breaks into safe-deposit boxes. There are stories about drugs.

At some point in his past, he went so far as to change his name. He goes around saying "fug" a lot. Although no one knows quite where his money comes from, he has finagled his way into the heart of our national life as owner of Harrods, of Punch magazine, even of Fulham Football Club.

Distaste for Fayed seems to unite right and left, broadsheet and tabloid. Somehow he seems to confirm our deepest prejudices. He is the dodgy foreigner who debauches our innocent maidens, corrupts our upstanding politicians, bullies and hectors and leers his way into a position of power like a slippery bazaar trader.

Yet, for all his wealth and wily foreign ways, he will never achieve his greatest ambition - to be accepted as a true-blue Englishman. How good that makes us feel.

What is it about an upwardly mobile immigrant who is as successful in making money as he is unsuccessful in ingratiating himself into the heart of his adopted land, that brings out the John Buchan in all of us, the acceptable face of English dago-phobia?

The last person to play this role was the subject of another Bower biography, Robert Maxwell. Like Fayed, Maxwell was clearly a nasty piece of work and was revealed at an early stage in his career to be an amoral bully obsessed with power and deals, whatever the price. Like Fayed, he was painfully, pathetically eager to be a part of the British establishment.

These days Maxwell is the stuff of comedy routines. Politicians can hardly bear to mention his name. In the worlds of book publishing and journalism, where the man's fortune was made and lost, he has become a non-person.

A discreet editing of recent history has taken place. Conveniently forgotten is the fact that, for more than two decades, countless respectable men and women, knowing full well the character of Maxwell, were quite happy to dance to his tune, to take his money, and use his malignant power to advance their own careers. Journalists kowtowed as he insisted on promoting himself and his interests in his own papers. The Labour Party was quite happy to use his funds and his helicopter at election time.

When he attempted to strangle at birth the Bower biography, it was none other than that respectable figure Peter Jay who signed the threatening letters dispatched to booksellers on behalf of his master. So central and respected a character was Maxwell that on one occasion he was to be seen, a portly, beaming figure, standing between Reagan and Gorbachev at a summit conference.

Yet, within a week of his death, he had become an all-purpose villain, loathed by all decent, God-fearing Englishmen. With a callousness which, had it been applied to anyone else, would have provoked deep disapproval, his drowning became, within days, the subject of cheap, easy laughs on TV comedy shows. Those whose careers and bank balances flourished while he was alive discreetly amended their curricula vitae.

In Fayed's case, there has been marginally less media nastiness, but the hypocrisy is identical. No one, after all, was ever forced to take his money - not the MPs, nor those selling him businesses, nor even the women who were paid for a bit of overtime in a flat in Paris. For all the shrieks of disapproval at his treatment of attractive female staff as would-be members of a private harem, none of them, so far as we can gather, decided not to work for him when they discovered the nature of their medical check-ups. Uncomfortable as it may be to admit, the very fact that he was so generous with his pounds 50 notes and plane tickets among the lookers on his payroll suggests that a few were quite happy to supplement their incomes with a little unofficial, extracurricular activity.

None of which is to suggest that the man is not a creep and a toad, just as Maxwell was a creep and a toad. But perhaps it is worth remembering, as we bristle with self-righteousness and close ranks against the foreign villain of the moment, the part that good old English double standards have played in his success.