A Political Life: Reeva Steenkamp, The Sun, and when the profit motive turns ugly

Plus, the author of 'How to be an MP' is an unusual minister himself

Chris Bryant
Friday 15 February 2013 19:28
South African model Reeva Steenkamp (left), with her former boyfriend Oscar Pistorius, who stands accused of her murder
South African model Reeva Steenkamp (left), with her former boyfriend Oscar Pistorius, who stands accused of her murder

This column was going to be about how the Left can sometimes be too cynical about the profit motive. I was going to say that the public sector can often be cumbersome and slow to react. I thought I’d recount the tale of a party colleague telling me five years ago that he didn’t want the private sector to have any role in the NHS in Wales in any shape or form – until I asked whether that included chemists, opticians, drugs companies and construction firms and suddenly he realised how preposterous his argument was.

I might have added that when ITV was created everyone moaned that a private broadcaster would only ever pander to the lowest common denominator and when Classic FM came along snobs at the BBC clutched their pearls in horror that classical music might be rendered (deep breath) popular. The pearl clutchers were proved wrong by Brideshead Revisited, by Inspector Morse, by Classic FM’s own highly successful concerts.

Then came yesterday’s front page of The Sun, with its salacious photograph of Reeva Steenkamp and the sensationalised details of the shots ringing out at Oscar Pistorius’s house in Cape Town. This was retailing domestic violence as popular entertainment. It was turning a horrific tragedy into a money-spinning sensation. Yes, somewhere deep in the paper there were finely tuned words that condemned what has happened. But in the end the paper’s editor, presumably with its proprietor’s connivance, made the nastiest, sleaziest set of choices to put that front page together. Nobody has been libelled. No law has been broken. But surely the paper should have been forced to think twice?

And no, it’s no excuse that Reeva Steenkamp was a model. Just as those creeps who argue that women who wear high heels and short skirts are “asking for it” deserve to have their Playstations confiscated for six months, so the editor of The Sun should be confined to a Trappist monastery for a while. In the UK two women get killed a week in domestic violence incidents. We’ve recently changed the law to make it easier to bring prosecutions for domestic violence long before a fatal incident.

In the case of the press, though, the naked pursuit of money, whether to please a distant proprietor or to gratify a lusty public, begrimes us all. Supermarkets, bankers, abattoirs all need regulating if they are not to succumb to the dazzling greed that the profit motive can inspire – and the press needs saving from itself.

Marriage Bill: the edited highlights

In case you were wondering what is happening on the Same Sex Marriage Bill Committee this week, the (very) edited highlights are as follows: Maria Miller would prefer to abolish civil partnerships as only marriage is the “gold standard”; the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark thinks homosexuality is a moral disorder; Professor Rivers (sadly not Joan Rivers) thinks that if gays are allowed to marry, marriage will come to an end; the Quakers, the Unitarians and some synagogues will perform same-sex marriages; the Methodists and the United Reformed Church will probably get round to them sooner or later; the Church in Wales is definitely (but not officially) up for it; Liberty and Stonewall are concerned about survivor pension rights for same sex couples; and Trans couples have depressingly had the worst deal of all.

Victims of the MP merry-go-round

Spare a thought for a friend’s parents who live in Hampshire. Over the past 20 years they have had five MPs. The first, Stephen Milligan, accidentally hanged himself with an orange in his mouth. His successor, David Chidgley, was only their MP for a while, as they moved into next-door Winchester and helped contribute to the Tory health minister Gerry Malone losing his seat in 1997, by just two votes. He contested the result, and in the resulting re-run the good burghers gave his Lib Dem opponent Mark Oaten a thumping 21,556 majority. Oaten then got into a little complicated trouble with the News of the World. And then, at the 2010 election, their village was bunged into the new Meon Valley seat. It is almost a shame they’re missing out on the by-election excitement now that Chris Huhne has sped his way into the history books.

Not every MP wants to be PM

There has been much snide commentary about MPs’ reading habits this week, as the Commons Library has revealed that the most borrowed tome is my colleague Paul Flynn’s latest, How to Be an MP. I don’t agree with Paul on lots of things but he’s a bundle of crusading zeal and acerbic wit.

He had a revealing exchange with the PM last week. Paul had cheekily suggested that Cameron’s career peaked when he was a backbench member of the Home Affairs Committee in 2005 and wondered whether he still supported the decriminalisation of drugs as he did then. Cameron looked at Paul with utter derision and snootily suggested that his career had been rather more successful than Paul’s.

What a mistake. Paul has never wanted to be a minister. His political heroes are all radicals who have used the backbenches to further their campaigns. And if you want to know what Paul thinks, just read his other book, Commons Knowledge, in which he offers advice to prospective ministers: “Cultivate the virtues of dullness and safety. Be attuned to the nation’s lowest common denominator of conscience, idealism and cowardice. At all costs avoid any appearance of humour, originality or interest in your speeches.” Paul’s career is going perfectly to plan.

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