Bryan Appleyard gives a personal view of the moral meaning of outing

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For days now we have been haunted by the face of Peter Tatchell - that wide jawbone, the fanatic stare and, in the accompanying text, the furious quotations denying blackmail. It is difficult to imagine a more unlovely image. The thundering leaders are clearly right - we don't like him and his tactics stink.

Meanwhile, over at the Bank of England it turns out that the deputy governor, Rupert Pennant-Rea, has been having an affair. Big, you might say, deal. But look how the Today newspaper splashes with the story: "The City of London was plunged into a new crisis last night over the private life of the country's second most important banker."

Suddenly, Today seems to have acquired a wide jawbone and a fanatic stare. Tatchell is mad if he thinks the revelation of private sexual inclinations will change the world for the better. But, equally, Today is crazy if it thinks that macro-economic and political consequences will flow from this little affair. The concept of "outing" and the tabloid sex scandal are symbiotically linked, a marriage from hell if ever there was one. Tatchell and the tabloids both thrive off the possibility of blackmail and they both require the facile delusion that a greater good is involved. Tatchell is at least honest in this respect. He really does seem to think that gay liberation will flow from the outing of bishops. The tabloids don't think this for a moment, they just want to apply a thin veneer of public interest to justify their very soft porn. But, as with Tatchell, the message, however unconvincingly delivered is: people should behave and we know how they should behave.

The convention of the tabloid shocker dates back to a time when we could all agree to be shocked. Forty years ago the veneer was thicker - people really did think certain standards of behaviour were required.

These days people either don't think like that at all or, if asked, they vaguely, weakly cling on to some old, almost forgotten standard of decency. The point is that the moral consensus has long gone. It may never have been an articulated consensus, but it was always there as a potential reference point, a line from which it was impossible, ultimately, to dissent.

Now we are fragmented, atomised, and the awareness that moral consensus has gone is driving more than Tatchell and the tabloids to a meddlesome frenzy. Remember "back to basics", a spectacularly doomed and incompetent Tory attempt to appeal to what was thought to be the still-beating heart of homespun British decency. And consider Labour's enthusiastic embracing of communitarianism, a back-to-basics fiasco lying in wait for the first Blair administration.

In fact, communitarianism highlights the delusions even more clearly than the standard tabloid "public interest" defence. All this feeble philosophy is actually saying is "wouldn't it be nice if...?" Wouldn't, for example, it be nice if people looked after each other? Wouldn't it be nice if they formed clubs and societies, engaged in more voluntary social work and so on? As political philosophy, an academic talking point, it has a rather thin validity. But as practical politics, it would be a catastrophe because it flatly refuses to engage with the real world, the atomised, fragmented, globalised world that knows no boundaries and sees no point in the pettiness of local limitation.

What all these things demonstrate is that we are the hollow men and we know it. We have become oppressively aware of a vacuum, a lack of effective, convincing, persuasive moral authority. And, in such a vacuum, it is not surprising that vicious, distorted, opportunistic monsters are breeding. For the simple fact is that we are getting all this hyped-up moralism because we have no morality.

The tabloid expos tradition is working better than ever - note, for example, how it flows effortlessly into the broadsheets these days - precisely because it is so empty. Far from ceasing to care about public interest and morality, we have become passionately involved. We want to be told there are standards, there is decency, there are accepted norms of behaviour. We want to hear it because we are frightened of our private conviction that there are no such things.

So when Tatchell rants against hypocrisy, perhaps our loathing is accompanied by a faint, ambiguous murmur. Perhaps he has some kind of point. It is not the point he thinks he has - in terms of public tolerance he has set gay liberation back a decade - but rather a wider, simpler, almost nostalgic point. Wasn't there, we might think, a time when you could not out a Church of England bishop because they weren't closet gays? And, if they are closet gays, shouldn't we be told? Not, emphatically, in the name of gay lib, but rather in the name of a church that asks for our belief and aspires to order our lives.

But that way madness lies. That way lies the society of rats. Tatchell wants gay clergy to rat on their bishops, the tabloids want lovers to rat on adulterers and even the Child Support Agency wants broken families to rat on each other. How could back to basics ever have worked? By ratting. And communitarianism? Ratting again. We may talk of community pressure and standards but, in this society, that becomes ratting.

Of course, there is something wrong. Of course, we have a problem of social cohesion, of finding a sense of ourselves. But such a sense cannot be imposed, it can only be realised; it can only be born of history, the language and the culture.

The moral rats are the symptoms, maybe even the celebration, of the problem; they are emphatically not the solution. No better Britain can emerge from their vile, infantile carnival. Perhaps no better Britain can ever again emerge - the ship may really be sinking but, this time, the rats are staying on board.