It is as if the MP's purchase on sympathy is dependent on his not being what the smears suggest

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A Just So story. I once interviewed Simon Callow for a television programme, and, rather impressed by his easy confidence, I asked the actor why he hadn't "come out" sooner, if the process under discussion was indeed responsible for his easy peace with himself. And Callow replied, that's a good question, because, God knows, I attempted to come out - to come out publicly - for years. I've never been ashamed of who I am, and when journalists did, in sly, sinister fashion, refer to "a certain rumour" I would say, that's no rumour. I am gay. I have a lover. I told reporter after reporter. It never made it into print.

I didn't get it: why wouldn't they print that you were gay if you were happy about it? And Callow sighed and said, well, precisely because I was happy about it. I wasn't hiding or tortured. The press's sole interest in my homosexuality was in either denial, so my reputation could be heartily defended (see what poor Simon Callow has got to put up with) or, conversely, in gloating exposure. Either way, homosexuality had to look bad: an insult or a secret. The press had no interest otherwise. In fact, once told, journalists could turn distinctly chilly, or worse. Note pads would be closed, pens put away. Hypocrisy was a given. Honesty, however, gummed up the works. That, Callow shrugged, was the unspoken game.

The game is afoot, with fresh twists and new variations. Since his suicide last month, the media has been pleased to print all manner of things about the life and death of Gordon McMaster, Labour MP for Paisley South, most of it supposition, and liable to remain so until Labour's Chief Whip, Nick Brown, finishes his investigation. Still, the public has learnt about everything from paedophile allegations to the dead man's weight (18/19/20 stone) to drug links, to the dirty complexities of Paisley politics, to the contents of McMaster's suicide note, in which party colleagues Lord (Don) Dixon and Tommy Graham, MP for Renfrewshire West, are named, rightly or wrongly, as the men who smeared McMaster not only as a homosexual, but as HIV-positive, too, as an "Aids carrier". We've even been made privy to his last words to posterity: "I would rather be dead with my conscience than alive with theirs." Little has been recoiled from. Save this: the fact that McMaster was what the savage, beery whispers claimed. Gay. Or struggling to be.

"Tasteless and irrelevant". That's what The Daily Telegraph quoted McMaster's friends as saying of Simon Edge's New Statesman piece about widely witnessed sightings of an uncomfortable Gordon McMaster in a "rough north London pub with black windows and sex on the premises" and at the Flamingo, Blackpool's premier gay disco. Feeling "tasteless and irrelevant", of course, may have been the very emotions the MP's tormentors, through luck or design, tapped into; the emotions that finally overwhelmed him. It's a more than likely scenario, certainly as valid as any theory currently doing the rounds, though you'd never guess it from delving into The Guardian. Having published every malicious titbit imaginable across the preceding two weeks, tut-tutting, of course, over each sick, sour shred of gossip, The Guardian still has the gall to report that Edge - not just a journalist, but, sniffily, "a gay journalist ... offers no conclusive proof that the man spotted was Mr McMaster". Which would be perfectly acceptable if the rebuttal of Edge's "charges" offered by McMaster's friends were treated with a similar caginess. Or at least an acknowledgement that a man as (potentially) closeted as McMaster possibly couldn't have borne for loved ones - actually, especially loved ones - to know he was gay. At least not until he was ready to deal with the matter himself (and perhaps he would never have been able to). Not even his close friends like Irene Adams, MP for Paisley North, or the Paisley Daily Express editor, Norman MacDonald, both unshakeable in their belief that "Gordon McMaster wasn't gay - it's utter nonsense".

Yet it is the possible lurking reality of the MP's homosexuality, rather than the supposedly false accusation of it, that the coverage clearly can't easily cope with. No television report has touched upon it, no paper has thought to investigate to prove Simon Edge either right or wrong. And why? That word again. Irrelevant ... It's almost as if McMaster's purchase on sympathy is dependent on his not being what the smears leeringly suggest he was. He couldn't, mustn't, have been in that club, that pub: it's simply some "gay" journalist gumming up the works. Besides, designated victims aren't meant to seek routes from their misery, so what may have been agonisingly central to McMaster's whisky-soaked demise is instead reduced to blind denial; a dismissive paragraph; a type of smear on those "tasteless" enough to raise the possibility. Think of the pain such assertions will cause the family, blinkered editorials cluck, as if it were more acceptable to consign McMaster's own pain to a quiet that can quite obviously kill.

Which, in a way, haplessly endorses the gossip-mongers' original line of attack. Whoever the culprits are - and let us hope we soon discover who - they chose shrewdly and well. By recognising who McMaster was they succeeded in blotting him out, the tired irony being that the press now blots him out by refusing to recognise who McMaster was. Is there a lesson to be draw from this? Cynicism mutters, "no", though there's a cheap laugh to be had at Tommy Graham's proud boomerang boast: "If I was going to call Gordon a poof I'd have called him it to his face"