Dominic Lawson: Oaten and the curse of the internet

More than almost any MP, he used a personal website to promote himself in a ridiculous way
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The Independent Online

The Talmud advises men who are quite incapable of controlling their sexual desires to "go to a city where you are not known, put on clothes that disguise you... and do the sordid thing." For millennia this course of action - designed to avoid bringing shame upon your own family, friends and community - has been adopted, by Jew and Gentile alike.

Today a leading politician, if he thought about this ancient Rabbinical advice, would realise that in the modern media age no city exists in his country where he will not be known. Mark Oaten tried to use part of that same media to guarantee his anonymity: he found a male prostitute by scanning the internet. Unfortunately for him, the man in question - it is absurd to describe a prostitute of 23 as a rent "boy", as if Oaten had also committed a crime - was quite able to watch the news on television. And so when Mark Oaten a fortnight ago declared that he was standing for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats, the prostitute for the first time knew exactly who his client was, and rang up The News of the World. Those who study such matters tell me that the paper would have shelled out around £20,000 for the sordid details, which, given that Mr Oaten was paying the man only £80 per hour, amounts to an overwhelming commercial argument for betrayal.

Not for nothing did another politician once explain to me his own practical rules governing sexual indiscretion in a nation where The News of the World is the richest and most popular newspaper: you should never, he said, have an affair unless the woman you are involved with has as much to lose as you do if it becomes public.

This, I think, was the unspoken basis - mutual nuclear deterrence - for the long affair between John Major and Edwina Currie. They were both fiercely ambitious junior ministers in the same Conservative government: neither could afford to shop the other, no matter how bitterly the relationship might break up. In the end, of course, Mrs Currie did sell the story of her affair with John Major, but only when she had finally - about a decade after everyone else in the country - worked out that she would never be Prime Minister. Major, meanwhile, had long since ceased being Prime Minister, and had nothing to lose, save his (not inconsiderable) pride.

While it is true that one in four members of the adult population chooses to read The News of the World, whose whole raison d'être is the exposure of sexual indiscretions by the nation's lawmakers and footballers, there are millions of other people who are - or claim to be - shocked, not by the indiscretions themselves, but by their publication.

But I do not go along with Bruce Anderson, who argued here yesterday that politicians such as Mr Oaten should be protected by a privacy law : in other words, newspaper editors who publish such stories ought to be sent to prison. Nor do I think it is healthy for legislators to pass laws entirely to serve their own interests, no matter how convincingly the legislation might be described as being in the public's interest .

In any case, it is a myth that such tales are of fascination only to the uncouth red-top press and its readers (otherwise known as the electorate). I am sure that the readers of this newspaper are more interested than those of The News of the World in knowing all they can about Mark Oaten, which is presumably why yesterday's Independent contained such a range of views about the implications of Mr Oaten's conduct. And, perhaps because Mr Oaten, more than any of the other candidates for the Liberal Democrat leadership, put his family at the heart of his campaign, none of the upmarket press has played the tired old game of deploring the excesses of The News of the World while following up all the lurid details.

I can still remember how comical The Daily Telegraph looked, when, one Monday under Max Hastings' editorship, it published a leading article fulminating about the exposure by the previous day's News of the World of the then chief of the defence staff's affair with the wonderfully named Lady Bienvenida Buck; while the same edition of the Telegraph contained page after page lifted straight from The News of the World's own lip-smacking account of the relationship.

Only once, in 15 years as an editor, was I in a position to agonise whether or not to pursue a story about sexual misconduct on the part of a man in public life. In 1995, when I was in charge of The Spectator, a woman called Mary Ellen Synon told my deputy, Anne Applebaum, that she knew the then deputy governor of the Bank of England, Rupert Pennant-Rae, had been having an affair, and... were we interested?

The dumped mistress was, of course, none other than Ms Synon herself. Anne and I decided to ignore it, but not, I must confess, principally out of concern for Sir Rupert, or even poor Lady Pennant-Rae. We just thought: so what? Anyway, a few weeks later Ms Synon had taken her story to The Sunday Mirror, which, on its front page, labelled her The Bonk of England. Sir Rupert resigned immediately: as ever, it was the improbably undignified details (that they had coupled under the Governor's desk) which did for him.

But what do we think should happen to Mr Oaten? Sir Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' acting leader, has called for his colleague to be allowed "a period of space", which, if nothing else, shows that Sir "Ming" has an interesting grasp of post-Newtonian physics. Mr Oaten himself has issued a statement apologising for "errors of judgement in my personal behaviour and for the embarrassment caused to my family".

Embarrassment is a very odd word to use in such a shattering context, but it is harsh to judge a man's phraseology in these circumstances. Political wisdom would say that if his wife can forgive him, then so should his electorate. However I can't see the women of Winchester offering up their babies to be kissed by Mr Oaten during the next general election campaign.

Perhaps the first thing Mark Oaten should do is forswear the internet, and not just because it was the means by which he sank into this dark pit. For, more than almost any other Member of Parliament, he used a personal website to promote himself in a way which made him appear faintly ridiculous. Turn to it even now, and you can read chapters such as Mark's Views, Mark In Winchester, Mark In Westminster and Mark Dispelling The Rumours. And his Home Page still begins, with an almost poignant lack of prescience: " It's been an eventful past couple of weeks ... I'm looking forward to a quiet weekend with my family."

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