The novelist Francis King once wrote a rather pointed short story entitled “Hard Feelings”. Set in the 1970s, when such relationships were more conspicuous than they are now, its cast consists of Adrian, a middle-aged antiques dealer, and Mike, his somewhat younger working-class boyfriend.
The pair are reunited after a five-year separation during which Mike has (voluntarily) laboured to repay the considerable sum of money stolen from his benefactor while working in the latter’s shop. Rife with tension and fraught with unspoken grievance, the evening reaches a painful climax at the moment when Mike notices that Adrian, in transit to the bathroom of their hotel suite, has taken his wallet with him. Although officially forgiven, rehabilitated and even offered his old job back, Mike cannot be trusted.
I remembered this fictional encounter last week when reading about the spectacular rehabilitation of Rebekah Brooks, and her reappointment to the post of chief executive officer of News UK (formerly News International), a role she was previously compelled to relinquish days after it was proved that people working for the company had hacked into the mobile phone of the murdered teenager Millie Dowler.
Naturally, there are distinctions to be drawn. Ms Brooks was not convicted of any crime, nor even of any impropriety. Technically, her conduct was as blameless as the black-clothed “Puritan maid” get-up in which she appeared in court. At the same time, it could not be denied that the various misdemeanours committed by employees took place on her watch.
What followed was a classic demonstration of the exculpatory tactic known as “the Murdoch Defence” in honour of her employer’s similarly embarrassed son, James. Ms Brooks, according to this exercise in elementary business logic, was the chief executive of a major international media operation. Therefore she ought to have known that some of her staff were breaking the law. If she did know, she was breaking the law herself. If she didn’t, then she was merely incompetent, which rather calls into question her ability to administer the company to whose senior echelon she has now been mysteriously recalled.
She has certainly been rehabilitated – a News UK spokesperson has hailed her as “a very successful journalist” and one of the few female chief executives in UK business – but has she been redeemed? The forthcoming revelations from Mark Hanna, her former security man, who insists that he has beans to spill, are eagerly awaited.
If the jury is still out, so to speak, on the particular case of Ms Brooks, then the general question of an individual’s efforts to secure redemption for past failings hangs over a great deal of contemporary public life. It could be observed, for example, in the American sprinter Justin Gatlin’s appearances at last month’s World Athletics Championships in Beijing. Mr Gatlin, twice banned from competition for drugs offences, had supposedly “served his time”. He had even gone so far as to express a certain amount of faint contrition, although the Murdoch Defence again reared its head in talk of a testosterone spray allegedly rubbed into his buttocks by a negligent coach.
None of this, though, cut much ice with the non-American sports commentators who, if not openly accusing him of continuing to cheat, derided his claims that the lifetime-best performances he has recently been achieving at the ripe age of 33 were simply the result of his not being allowed to compete when younger.
Such was the level of complaint that the Bolt-Gatlin showdown of the men’s 100 metres and 200 metres finals – thankfully both won by Bolt – was turned into a kind of ethical parable. Had Gatlin got his nose in front, it seems probable that his victory lap would have been accompanied by a chorus of boos. All of which raises a fascinating moral dilemma. After all, the first principle of most justice systems is that offenders are entitled to try to redeem themselves. Justice Minister Michael Gove, if asked, would doubtless argue that the point of a prison sentence is a) to make society safer by removing the offender from it; b) to punish offenders for their crime by taking away their liberty; and c) encourage them to better themselves morally, to the point where they can be brought back into the world which was so anxious to lock them away. Liberal-minded observers may possibly believe that modern governments are keener on parts a) and b) but that is by the way.
The drawback to this tripartite process is that the third stage of it demands reciprocity: on the one hand, a demonstrable effort on the part of the sinner; on the other an acknowledgment of the reparation made by those sinned against. It is here that the path from rehabilitation to redemption tends to come unstuck, largely because it demands a leap of faith, a willingness to believe that someone has behaved well for a change, that most onlookers are deeply reluctant to take. For my own part, I wanted Justin Gatlin to lose by the length of the finishing straight in every race he entered, but by the end of the world championships I began to have a certain amount of sympathy for him, if only because there was nothing whatever he could have done to get the crowd on his side. He could have constructed a mound of blood supplements and nerve stimulants in the middle of the Bird’s Nest stadium and set light to it, melted down his silver medals on the spot and given the proceeds to charity, and still no one would have cared.
Gatlin, in the end, to borrow that wonderful phrase of Oscar Wilde’s, was a lion in a den full of Daniels, whatever feelings he may have had crushed in advance by the weight of collective moral disapproval. And if a professional sportsman has difficulty in rebuilding his or her life, post-misdemeanour, then consider the problems that apply in more elevated purlieus. A disgraced politician can only follow the Profumo route of good works in a completely different sphere. No plagiarising novelist or academic is ever allowed to forget that he once copied out someone else’s work and passed it off as his own. It is the same with the former Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond, now working somewhere in Africa, who until the end of his life and however many primary schools he may, or may not, found in Nigeria will always be remembered as, to quote Lord Mandelson’s description, “the unacceptable face of banking”.
There are exceptions to this rule – one thinks of Winston Churchill, a terrible First Lord of the Admiralty and an indifferent Chancellor, who still managed to emerge with the public on his side in 1940 – but such renaissances take a degree of willpower that 99 per cent of the population does not possess.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us back to Ms Brooks. How will she get on, and what will people think of her? The answer, you suspect, is that she will have a great deal of difficulty. Her enemies will go on disliking her and former friends, knowing of the eavesdropping that went on under her superintendence, will fear betrayal.
Mr Hanna’s contribution may very well bring the whole edifice crashing down around her head. As for myself, though the possibility of my sharing a hotel suite with Mr Murdoch’s hench-maiden is comfortably remote, if I were the character in “Hard Feelings” I should probably have the grace to leave my wallet in my jacket pocket en route to the bathroom. On the other hand, I should very much want to keep an eye on my phone.Reuse content