The pitiless exploitation of private folly

In almost any country other than Britain, a headmaster's liaison with an escort-girl would be seen as a fact of human life rather than the cue for a press frenzy, writes Margaret Atkins.

After a news-free week in St Petersburg I arrived at the airport and spotted the headline of an English newspaper. The headmaster of Charterhouse had resigned on account of a meeting with an escort-girl: so what was new? Except that I happen to know the headmaster of Charterhouse.

For once the passive, colourless face in the news was a flesh-and-blood human being with a real family and real friends. I had not expected that my first response to Britain after a week in post-Tsarist, post-Communist Russia would be to feel utterly sickened. Is this the free society that we are so eager to export? The pitiless commercial exploitation of private folly and private grief: is this the cherished fruit of West European culture and liberty ?

Why do we do it? Why do we abuse and degrade our political and intellectual freedom in this way? To put it more bluntly: why do we buy the papers that trade in these cruel stories? (And let us be quite clear: the "quality" papers in general exploit such cases not a scrap less than the tabloids.) After all, even to the most naive it is hardly news that respectable middle-aged men share human temptations and human frailty.

It is certainly not news to Christians. The liturgy of the Eucharist begins with confession. Together we each admit that we - that I - have sinned. "Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa" ("my fault, my own most grievous fault"), as the Latin liturgy used to run. To take part in such a ritual is not to be theatrical, or guilt-ridden, or hypocritical. This is no more than a quiet acknowledgement of the facts of human life, comparable to cleaning one's teeth.

The confession of sin is a part of the liturgical air that we breathe. The most self-righteous among us is forced to pause and think: "That could have been me." Or rather, "That was me." When G.K. Chesterton's gentle detective Father Brown was asked the secret of his success, he replied that it was quite simple: "You see, I committed the crimes myself." And Father Brown's subtle detective work reveals another truth. If we free our imaginations from over-hasty condemnation into measured compassion we might just ask ourselves this: in any one case, do we actually know what took place? Perhaps some of the lives that we are destroying are innocent.

But confession is only the first step on the slow and painful path to reconciliation. When the human wounds are deep, whether they are caused by infidelity or by war, they will be healed only by a thousand fragile gestures of repentance, of generosity, of pardon. Lasting forgiveness cannot be won cheaply, as the crucifixion constantly reminds the Christian church.

The cross is the model of our calling. The most serious, the most adult, of all human activities is to make peace, with God and with one another. "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God." To restore our broken friendships, within the privacy of an estranged family, across the sectarian divide of a province, requires costly struggle. The sinners who repent, and the sinned against who forgive, are the heroes of that struggle.

Both are utterly vulnerable, like the adulteress whom Jesus saved from being stoned, like Christ himself as he forgave his killers from the cross. They are on the ground, struggling to get to their knees. It takes one mindless kick in the face from the thugs among the press to make sure that they stay where they are. Is that what we really want? An irony lies here: those who take the realities of sin most seriously insist also upon protecting the possibility of forgiveness. Compassion should not be the contrary of hard moral teaching, but its complement and its fruit.

Confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, healing: these are the painful facts of grown-up human life. Our repeated assaults on the whole delicate process are a mark not of freedom, but of stupendous collective immaturity. We have simply lost touch with reality. One of the basic tasks of Christianity is to make us face it again.

Two days before leaving St Petersburg, I sat in a cafe with a philosopher colleague and observed the developing encounter between a teenage girl and a businessman - she pale, poised and pretty, clad in scanty but elegant velvet; he the model of respectable middle age, with tweed jacket and burnished shoes. We discussed the ethical implications of the scene before us with detached, analytical sympathy. In every city in Europe, I thought with some sadness, the same casual bargains were being struck in the same cheap emotional currency. But in every city in Europe, thanks be to God, they were not hitting the headlines.

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