Media: The press: derailed by sex drive: Last week drove the papers wild, while the Corporation averted its eyes: S J Taylor reads the sleaze-athon

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The Independent Online
The British press may very well founder on its most recent feeding frenzies. The latest is the frankly absurd resignation of the MP Hartley Booth, a ministerial aid, in what apppears to be a parody of a political scandal, with the art student Emily Barr posing prettily in red on the front pages of the Valentine's Day editions and Mr Booth denying anything more between himself and the girl than a few cuddles and some silly rhymes.

From Steven Norris's many mistresses to Tim Yeo's love children, it is clear that the press feels right at home with the philandering of male public servants. More perplexing was the eccentric death of Stephen Milligan. The coverage of this story has demonstrated how inept the press can be when confronted by a story that deals in dark issues that don't fit the mould.

As reporters and commentators attempted to explain the inexplicable, public reaction remained more mature and composed than that of the journalists whose job it is to lead public opinion. For the man and woman on the street, there was a certain sad recognition of human frailty and a dignified silence. The public refused to entertain the idea that the Milligan story was only one more in a long string of political scandals. And despite the tone of condescension from most members of the press, readers declined to condemn or condone the manner in which he died; they simply accepted it.

Since last Tuesday, when the story hit the headlines, the sentiment I have heard expressed by friends and acquaintances has been unexpectedly stern: 'What a man does in his own house is his own business.' The subtext? 'There are worse things in life than this, and we have to read about them in our newspapers every day.'

But the press, almost self-indulgent in its fear and loathing of Mr Milligan's fate, would have it otherwise. And watching the replay of old familiar themes has made it obvious how inadequate is this gigantic apparatus for public disclosure when dealing with anything that doesn't fit the formula of adultery, pay-offs and public confessionals. Not that they didn't try with Mr Milligan.

First, there was a rerun of the old 'public-man, secret-vice' thesis, a rather tired echo of Gladstone and his prostitutes, in which an inappropriate preoccupation is held to define the man somehow more accurately than his life's work or achievements. But what might have gone down well in Victorian England no longer convinces a readership that daily absorbs from the various media acts of violence and misbehaviour so sordid as to numb the most innocent and nave of sensibilities.

Even less effective was the short-lived attempt by one or two columnists to make the Milligan story into some kind of vaudevillian act about stockings and suspenders, with vague punch lines about oranges. Such forays into bad taste came to a quick halt when it became apparent that the public, and even a few members of the press themselves, weren't going to allow the lurid details of a man's death to dominate the memory of who he was when he was living.

The press's attempts to analyse every aspect of Mr Milligan's behaviour with an eye to proving his inadequacy as a man and as a human being were intrusive and inept. The matter was too complex and mysterious for the instant psycho-sexual speculation that makes for a quick write and an easy read.

Even the more serious attempt of the press to place the death of Mr Milligan at the centre of the spectacular failure of the Government's 'back to basics' programme may become an ironic footnote in press history, since a White Paper setting out plans for new criminal and civil restrictions on the press is due in March. The press faces the spectre of injunctions, penalties and the loss of its right to 'put its own house in order'. Electronic surveillance, telephone tapping and the use of long-lens cameras appear certain to be limited.

The Government has hinted that it might well stop short of the worst-case scenario. But privacy legislation may have received its greatest impetus from the crass treatment of the death of Mr Milligan. The facile question put forward by confused commentators - 'At what point in this man's life did things go so disastrously wrong?' - might now be applied to the press itself.

And the answers are worrying. For many years the British press has been gorging on the cult of celebrity, growing ever more bloated with sensation and scandal as an ever-ready source of copy. The previously safe formula of public exposure and consequent outrage no longer works. Enough is enough.

The history of the press in this country is characterised by long periods of journalistic excess followed by longer periods of government clampdown, to the extent that it now seems part of the natural cycle of British public expression. The lesson never learnt is that when the press fails in its watchdog function and its ability to deliver a measured response to the needs of the public it serves, it loses its privileged position. If newspapers can offer their readers nothing more than the monotonous recycling of tales about ambitious bimbos and pathetic middle-aged gropers, the public may pull the plug before the Government does.

S J Taylor is author of 'Shock] Horror] The Tabloids in Action' (Corgi, pounds 7.99), and is writing a history of the 'Daily Mail'.

(Photograph omitted)