Journalists today would not dare claim to be the modern substitute for gods, although some of their proprietors might. But they still imply that their pillorying of public figures imposes some sort of moral restraint. Their attitude to celebrity cases is the same coarse matt mix of grubbiness and opportunism covered over with a hard shining varnish of righteousness. Yet their readers' muted response to their brouhaha about the sexual preferences of Ron Davies, Nick Brown and Peter Mandelson suggests that some scandal- mongering is losing its appeal.
Stead was a self-styled "puritan" with a keen interest in sex who enjoyed tut-tutting over other people's smut. More important, even, than his own salacity was his hard business sense. He knew that ever since the Prince Regent fell out with his wife Caroline of Brunswick, scandalous sex stories had sold copies. People like to read about their betters making fools of themselves. They have always relished the humiliation when someone with a coronet, or political fame, is caught with stains on their sheets. There is nothing new about the excessive English excitement over the sex lives of rich or powerful celebrities.
The diaries of Woodrow Wyatt, who wrote for two Murdoch newspapers, the Times and the News of the World, are wonderfully revealing of his proprietor's attitude to sexual sleaze. He has exactly Stead's mixture of mischief-making and sham morality. In 1987 Rupert Murdoch "giggles away about a story they have about Roy Hattersley [his girlfriend] in the News of the World". But his glee has its limits. The next year, shortly after the same paper had decided not to run a story about a cabinet minister taking "two tarts" to a hotel off Victoria Street, its then editor, Wendy Henry, resigned after a talk with her boss. Wyatt quotes Murdoch's words verbatim. "I said to her I thought she was very good but she went overboard too often and put in all the sexy sensational bits merely for their own sake, forgetting that the News of the World should be a morality play and that was its strength. It is only supposed to expose bad behaviour in order to discourage it. Not to reveal it in a way which might make people think it was OK."
For most of the last century newspaper coverage of homosexuality among politicians was minimal. Queers did not fit easily into the News of the World morality play. "Outing" was thought to be boorish and immature.
Perhaps the earliest case of it was in the general election of 1892. In the West Dorset constituency a colourless Liberal called Charles Gatty stood against the sitting Conservative MP, a brutish squire called Farquharson. One of Farquharson's friends had long ago been at public school with Gatty, and remembered that he had left abruptly under a cloud of suspicion. The Conservatives, who were in no danger of losing the seat to Gatty, nevertheless circulated rumours about him as an "unmentionable". Subsequently he successfully sued for slander. Luckily for him, perhaps, the case was tried shortly before Oscar Wilde's trials, and attracted little publicity. His detractors emerged from the slander action as essentially stupid men, acting out of malice, and Gatty as a bullied schoolboy, who had probably been used as a "bitch" by some of the bigger fellows in his boarding-house.
Gatty's ordeal had no impact, except perhaps in Cheltenham, where the sitting MP, James Agg-Gardner, unexpectedly announced shortly after the case that he would not stand at the next general election. Agg-Gardner was another gently ineffectual man, who was one of the earliest Conservatives to support women's suffrage and pioneered legislation on fire escapes. His homosexuality was of the discreet and sentimental kind - he lived much of his life in hotels, with their accommodating supply of lift-boys and waiters - and his preferences were never publicly surmised until his death.
Suicide was the preferred option of the few politicians who were caught. The former cabinet minister Lulu Harcourt killed himself in 1922 after he was detected in an affair with a pubescent boy, Edward James, afterwards a famous surrealist and balletomane. Similarly, Sir Paul Latham, a young, bright and married Conservative MP, who had inherited a baronetcy and millions from Courtaulds, flung himself from his speeding motorbike in 1941 when his involvement with three gunners was discovered by the military authorities. He survived his injuries, resigned his parliamentary seat and was sentenced to two years' imprisonment. "Paul says that no one has ever insulted him since he came out of prison, but I noticed that people in the Eastbourne hotel stared at him," wrote his friend James Lees-Milne who visited him shortly afterwards. "Just the same in appearance, like a bounding retriever puppy, he was giggly and rather endearing. He is far less hysterical and more reconciled. Less sex mad."
The Conservative MP and diarist "Chips" Channon was as "out" as any man can be who has publicly left his wife for a swishy, youthful fashion journalist known throughout London as "Petticoats". It was not his sexuality that prevented his political promotion but his obsequiousness. "Channon, who has the servants' hall mentality, would make a good butler to minor royalty," said one MP. He had other questionable habits. Entertaining the queens of Spain and Romania in 1947, he "laced the cocktails with Benzedrine, which I find always makes a party go".
The great change came in 1979. Until then "Is he one of those?" had been a shy, reasonably unjudgemental question that naive people asked about unmarried men. After 1979 "Is he one of us?" was a favourite catchphrase of the prime minister who brought the paranoid style to the fore of British politics. For nearly 20 years the country was run by politicians who thrived on raising bogies. Argies, miners, Greenham women, acid house party-goers, single mothers, poufs - they were all justifiable targets for the rage and rituals of humiliation that Thatcherism's enemies had to endure.
Peter Tatchell's Labour candidacy at the Bermondsey by-election of 1982 - when he was reviled for his sexuality with a viciousness far exceeding the slurs on Charles Gatty 90 years earlier - was a turning point. Homosexuality was legitimated as a way of damaging political opponents. Some of Saatchi's campaign adverts during the 1987 general election (at the height of anxiety on Aids) fastened innuendoes on the Labour Party as the party of proselytising homosexuals.
Around the same time some British gay activists picked up a craze from their American counterparts of "outing" public figures. Their claims were as self-righteous as WT Stead, but their tone was much shriller. They resembled little children, bursting into their parents' bedroom early on Sunday morning, trying to catch them at it. They were as envious and attention-seeking as all know-all kids wanting to disrupt their elders.
The Tory MP Michael Brown, whose homosexuality was known to most colleagues, lobby journalists and local party workers in his northern working-class constituency, was nevertheless "outed" by the News of the World as a stunt during John Major's "Back to Basics" fiasco in 1994. He expected "adverse reaction", but apart from a few homophobic letters, found the fuss was over in a week. The impression of increasing indifference has been strengthened by press reactions to the recent misfortunes of Ron Davies and Nick Brown.
It is true that extremists continue to imagine conspiracies. The Sun has trumpeted that there is a "Gay Mafia" in the Cabinet - members of a "closed world of men with mutual self-interest". Norman Tebbit has declared that one can never have a homosexual home secretary because such men do each other favours. Tom Utley argued in the Daily Telegraph "that homophobia is right" because homosexuals are "engaged in a massive recruitment drive", are "prone to cattiness, selfishness, promiscuity and cowardice" and make reckless politicians. "Lacking the urge to pass on their genes, they may also lack the heterosexual's instinctive feeling for posterity." Telegraph readers - attracted by Utley's declaration "That may be pure tripe, but that is what I think" - have supported him with hundreds of letters.
But the Sun has also backed Peter Mandelson's right to privacy and discarded his outer, Matthew Parris, as a columnist. Its attempts to excite anti- gay hysteria were half-hearted. Tebbit's fulminations sound like those of an unimportant grumpy old man. Utley's rant just seems a disagreeable eccentricity. Much more convincingly the Mirror's telephone poll found that 9,676 of their readers wanted to know their MP's sexuality and 15,648 did not. The British electorate (like the Americans during Bill Clinton's troubles) have grown up. They no longer believe that journalists are like the All-Seeing Eye of God. They have learnt the first principle of sexual ethics: always distrust the accuser.
Human beings, under the old journalistic morality, were rewarded not for what they did, but for how their acts were defined. For this reason they were often more interested in better justifying themselves than in better behaving themselves. But the Mirror poll suggests that a growing majority wants to judge people on what they do, not by how they are defined.
Emotional cost of outing, Real Life