Is adultery acceptable these days?

'Lord Holme was exposed on Sunday as an adulterer after a covert investigation provided evidence of his affairs with two young women. They were described as a single mother and a bit-part actress, as if these facts were somehow evidence of their own lack of moral standing.'
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The Independent Online

Lord Holme of Cheltenham has the look of a man from a different era. Loyal to the style of dress and grooming favoured by men of his class, and current age, in the days of his youth, the Lib-Dem peer has something of the "dapper" style of Steed in The Avengers. (Those whose curiosity about the wider shores of Lord Holme's fantasies have been pricked by the News of the World's references to Skin 2 magazine may be interested to learn that it is a glossy, not so far from the mainstream, that Emma Peel might have found useful for ordering leather catsuits.)

Lord Holme of Cheltenham has the look of a man from a different era. Loyal to the style of dress and grooming favoured by men of his class, and current age, in the days of his youth, the Lib-Dem peer has something of the "dapper" style of Steed in The Avengers. (Those whose curiosity about the wider shores of Lord Holme's fantasies have been pricked by the News of the World's references to Skin 2 magazine may be interested to learn that it is a glossy, not so far from the mainstream, that Emma Peel might have found useful for ordering leather catsuits.)

But even though he was chairman of the Broadcasting Standards Commission, his own avengers - the staff of the News of the World - have forced his resignation without reference to the manner in which he did his job. Lord Holme was exposed on Sunday as an adulterer after a long, covert investigation provided evidence of his affairs with two young women. They were described as a single mother and a bit-part actress, as if these facts were somehow evidence of their own lack of moral standing. Lord Holme's wife of more than 40 years has expressed her intention to stand by him. It is not only Lord Holme's personal appearance, but also the way in which he has lost his job, that seems to come from another era.

I'm simply confused about all this. The case may sound unanswerable. Surely a guardian of public morals must make sure his own morals are unimpeachable. As Rebekah Wade, editor of the News of the World put it, "By day he decides what YOU watch on TV. By night he indulges his fantasies." But actually, there is not a word of truth in these two sentences.

First, what is this awful, overwrought, cliché: "By night he indulges his fantasies"? Surely if fantasies are indulged, then they're facts. If the News of the World could print fantasies, then they'd hardly have been obliged to resort to indulge in what Lord Holme called "journalism based on spying, telephone interception and misappropriated private correspondence for commercial gain".

Second, Lord Holme didn't ever decide what anyone watches on TV. Individual viewers decide what they watch on television, and if they find what they see to be offensive to them, then they complain to the Broadcasting Standards Commission. The Commission investigates complaints and decides whether or not they should be upheld. In other words, Lord Holme never decided what people watched on TV. He just helped to decide whether complainants were justified.

Recent judgements have included: a dressing-down for the Channel 4 television series Jam for sketches involving abortion, dead children and people with special needs; the suggestion that a Channel 5 documentary about transvestites, called Tranny School, should be shown after the watershed; a judgement that the second series of Channel 5's Sex And Shopping, about the pornography industry, contained material "of a graphic nature" which was too detailed for transmission; and a ticking-off for Chris Evans for discussing methods of bondage on his morning radio show while children were listening.

The News of the World has offered no analysis of these judgements, nor given any indication of how they might have been affected by the adulterous affairs of someone making them. After all, you could understand that there would have been a real hypocrisy if Lord Holme had insisted in public that adultery could only be portrayed on television if the protagonists were sorely punished for their sins. But instead, Lord Holme has spent his year at the BSC like the rest of us, offered a stream of television dramas in which the motor of the action is rarely anything but adultery. Adulterous affairs, much more morally compromising than the two that the News of the World is so outraged about, appear routinely before the watershed.

Rebekah Wade's lover, Ross Kemp, has made a career out of such portrayals, first as Grant Mitchell in EastEnders, conducting an affair with the mother of his wife and grandmother of his toddler, while the nation's children looked on. This week we can see him once again "indulging fantasies" by playing another man who is cheating on his wife.

Meanwhile, EastEnders is currently embroiled in another of its endless adultery storylines, this time with Grant's mum Peggy having the dirty done on her by Frank, who is having an affair with Pat, who is married to Roy. If anything drove Lord Holme to have affairs, it was probably watching too many soap operas.

It is a funny society in which adultery is routinely portrayed in popular culture as a common weakness similar to failing to resist a Mars Bar on the way home from work, but can also be occasionally invoked in real life as a terrible sin debarring certain individuals from remaining in public office (although others do not need to remain faithful to their wives to conduct ethical foreign policies). Of course, Lord Holme knew he was an adulterer before he accepted his post as head of the BSC, and he was a fool not to understand that the tabloid press likes nothing more that to uncover a man in his position. I personally do not think that lying to and deceiving a person you are supposed to care for is at all moral or admirable, and I don't suppose Lord Holme's wife considers such behaviour too clever either.

But what worries me more is the manner in which none of us appear to know what we really think about adultery, affairs, two-timing, call it what you will, any more. It is anomalous that some people can lose their public service jobs over such behaviour, while others can keep them; or that it's all right for adultery to be discussed or portrayed on television at any time of the day or night, but that a man cannot make judgements on the wider shores of broadcast excess because he himself is indulging in the actions which form a central staple of the medium he is regulating.

In a speech to the Royal Television Society in August, Lord Holme suggested that in broadcasting "the traditional emphasis on taste and decency should be replaced with one reflecting the community standards that are acceptable in modern Britain." But no one is certain any more whether adultery is a community standard that is acceptable or not.

What this moral vacuum creates is opportunist naming and shaming. Lord Holme is clearly a man of the old school, whose resignation indicates that, no matter what he actually did, he does see his adultery as something shameful and wrong. From a man who felt less guilt about his misbehaviour - a Bill Clinton, a Robin Cook, a Steve Norris or a David Mellor - the decision to resign would not have come as quickly, or at all.

It is only those who feel truly ashamed of their exposure who can now be truly hurt by it. That is what is so very nasty about such exposés. Only the adulterers who themselves feel they have done something wrong are damaged by them. News of the World revulsion may be great, but again and again we have seen that public revulsion is much less great.

So it all ends up with pot-shots being taken in all directions, and fall or survival ultimately dependent only on whether or not a public figure is prepared to tough it out. Whether this method winnows out the best of people, or the worst of them, can be seen in the declining standard of competence of those who hold public office in commissions, quangos and Cabinets across the land.

* d.orr@independent.co.uk

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