The Diary: Passion gets the better of propriety

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THE "CRONACA ROSA" is the section in every Italian newspaper that no self-respecting intellectual would be caught dead reading (but always sneaks a peek at). It documents, for two or more pages, deadly domestic dramas that lend themselves to screaming headlines. "Husband shoots wife's lover in bed"; "Mistress-wife catfight ends in murder"; and " `I was fed up with being a cuckold', confesses killer".

You would have thought, reading the papers here last week, that we had been transported to the backstreets of Naples. From Mike Hollingsworth, Anne Diamond's husband, who said he was nearly throttled by his lover and had to slap her back to her senses; to Jenny Cupit, the member of an amateur dramatics group who killed the wife of the man she loved, crime passionnel has infected Britain and killed off a national archetype: the phlegmatic and discreet Englishman (and woman) who recoiled from reckless passion and shirked from scandal.

Violent love, of course, has always lurked beneath the surface of domestic life in Britain as elsewhere: wife-battering, child abuse and ugly matrimonial scenes were often the dirty linen that so-called civilised nuclear families stuffed in their cupboards. Until now, though, such explosive erotic combustions were rare enough to merit portrayal in film and books - the Happy Valley murderous love triangle that became White Mischief fired the public imagination. For the most part, though, extra-marital loves were genteel and unconsummated affairs, played out against a Brief Encounter soundtrack of sighs and timid murmurs.

No more. The stiff upper lip of propriety has been split open by the impatient lover's punch: "I want your husband/wife and I want them now."

This new breed of passion victims has been seduced by the Latins' inflated view of love. But, new to the game, they fluff the lines and stumble their entrances as they desperately ape the high-octane, operatic passions so common in Rome or Rouen, turning in an unconvincing performance. Thus we have the distinctly Anglo-Saxon scene whereby Hollingsworth drives his lover and himself to Reading police station; and Jenny Cupit - instead of standing defiant before the corpse of her dead rival - cowers with her enemy's baby and wails that a skinhead had done the deed. No, I fear that when it comes to this sort of thing the British still don't carry it off. Perhaps a perusal of the cronaca rosa would help.

TRAITOR TO the cause or champion of integrity? Whichever way you saw them, the corporate whistleblowers of yesterday wound up inevitably as martyrs. Those who grassed were often spurned by colleagues, stomped on by employers, even sacked. Only a handful ever retained their position - and then only when their complaints saved the company money by unearthing corporate fraud or waste of funds.

Next week, though, with a great roll of drums and waving of tambourines, a new whistleblowers' charter will be unveiled. The Public Interest Disclosure Act will protect employees who voice concern about crime, miscarriages of justice and health or safety hazards in the workplace. Employers, employees and, of course, lawyers have been heaping praise on the new law for generating a "culture of openness", fairness and trust. Perhaps, but I would wager my next New Statesman pay packet that these highfalutin principles are doomed in practice. In an environment where so many institutions, private as well as public, are run according to market principles, the whistleblower risks, more than ever, a colleague going for his windpipe. Survival by competition - as true for British Airways as for schools - means that any criticism of the way things are done will set off a devastating domino effect.

As a journalist you come up against this more and more. Take a school, for instance, which is conscious of having to compete for students. Try asking a teacher for a comment about a bullying head or unruly students or leaking roofs. Mr Chips immediately does an ostrich act, head lowered, eyes avoiding yours: not because of cowardice but because today's employees know that to stir is to trigger repercussions that will ruin what is now sacrosanct - the image of their workplace. One slur, and a school will be at the bottom of the parents' pile, one complaint and a company can see its profits plunge. The pressures against the whistleblower have grown, not shrunk - and no charter can change this.

IN THE ancient photograph, the woman in black stands against a bright backdrop of trees, her hatted figure blurred. She draws your gaze immediately, so that it is only as an afterthought that you notice the troupe of soldiers lined up before her. More than 80 years after she was shot as a spy by a French firing squad, Mata Hari, whose MI5 files were released last week, still captivates. The legend of her exotic looks and innumerable lovers is coiled around her like one of those snakes she used to perform with in the great theatres of Europe. Yet she beguiles not because of her appetite or her curves, but because of the contradiction she makes flesh: she's a free spirit very much for sale.

As she rushed from interrogation by MI5 in London into the arms of her Russian lover on the French front, and criss-crossed the continent for assignations with barons and colonels, the Secret Service in hot pursuit, Marguerite Zeele knew no boundaries - neither of nation or custom. She shocked the world with a courtroom confession of her affairs, acknowledging her predilection for officers. And yet, while she cast off the muzzle of bourgeois mores and the restraints of patriotic sentiments, this femme fatale sold her favours to the highest bidder and her gossip at the best price.

The files published last week revealed that Mata Hari's spying amounted to little more than tittle-tattle: her pillow talk uncovered no great state secrets or covert campaigns. In the end, one suspects, it was not her betrayal of the Allies that cost this spy her life - rather, it was her shameless disregard for convention.

The writer is deputy editor of the `New Statesman'

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