by Paul Kavanagh
As Hazel Lewry so eloquently pointed out in the pages of Newsnet just the other day, the history of Westminster is the history of scandals. It was sobering to read the account of one scandal after another, always followed by promises that Westminster would root out the problem, and always followed by another scandal. Scandal is in fact the normal operating condition of the Westminster system.
Scandals come along so often that we’ve grown inured to them. Despite the tabloid claims of “shocking scandal”, no one is especially shocked or scandalised to discover that a Conservative MP is involved in kinky sex, as kinky sex and Conservative MPs are held by many to be natural bedfellows.
The Stephen Milligan scandal of 1994, in which an up and coming Conservative MP managed to kill himself in highly embarrassing circumstances involving kinky sex, fishnet tights, a bin-bag and an orange segment, was a rare exception. But the shock came from the discovery that it is in fact possible to commit an obscene act with citrus fruit. Personally I’ve viewed the fruit counter at Tesco’s in a whole new light ever since.
The Milligan affair was more a personal tragedy than anything else. Other scandals are far more serious, involving betrayal of public trust and sometimes of public funds. Yet all get the same scandalous treatment in the popular media. We are invited to be shocked and outraged in equal measure by every new scandal. We need some officially recognised system of determining the gravity of a Westminster scandal. It would let us know how outraged we’re supposed to be.
So I propose a unit of measure. A milligan, as its name suggests, would be a tiny wee scandalette worth a couple of titters, some tsks, and possibly an outraged letter to the Telegraph if you happen to have a personal interest in the moral welfare of citrus fruit. By comparision the News of the World scandal represents two thousand kilo-gans, or two murdochs.
We can now state scientifically that two murdochs’ worth of high grade sleaze and ooze has just exploded all over the face of the British establishment in an outburst of foul smelling dreck that not even several chemists’ worth of Immodium could have shifted.
If British political scandals were Icelandic volcanic eruptions, this one has already grounded all media traffic for weeks and there’s no sign that the blinding fog is about to lift any time soon. Not even the Labour party, the Ryanair of British politics, wants to fly through it.
The full extent of the catastrophic decline and fall of the Murdoch empire was revealed on Tuesday when Rupert and James Murdoch made their much heralded appearance before the House of Commons select committee. Before our eyes the mighty Darth Murdoch, feared by prime ministers and presidents, was revealed to be a clueless old man wielding a light sabre made from a toilet roll and an old flourescent tube he’d found while midgie-raking in a skip.
Murdoch had fallen so low that even Keith Vaz MP was able to take the moral high ground. It must have felt like Jedward telling you off for attention seeking behaviour. Before our eyes Murdoch morphed into the bastard offspring of the ever so ‘umble Uriah Heep and Manuel from Fawlty Towers, his appearance notably mainly for the number of times he told us, “I know nothing.” Forcing the oleaginous James to intervene with, “I’m terribly sorry … He’s from Melbourne.”
But even though the Murdochs were doing a perfectly good job all by themselves of destroying what little shreds remain of the respect they once commanded, one clown decided it was time to send in the clowns, and attempted to land a shaving foam pie on Murdoch senior’s coupon, most of which missed. For satellite viewers who missed the pie throwing incident, you can see it over and over again by pressing the yellow button on your Pie+ remote.
It was a sign of the desperation in the Murdoch camp over Rupe’s dire performance that they believed that the incident might actually generate public sympathy. In much the same way, history forgot that Alaric the Goth sacked Rome when the Roman Senate had a wee giggle over an embarassing incident involving Alaric getting a bucket of paint tipped over him, which had somehow made its way onto FaceScroll, the Dark Ages version of social networking. It was all the more ironic because Alaric had paid the inflated sum of 15 goats, six virgins and the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg in a misguided attempt to muscle in on the illuminated manuscript market.
At first James Murdoch must have thought he’d acquitted himself somewhat better than the old man, although James’s memory was equally patchy. All those expensive elocution lessons his dad bought for him from a speak-your-weight machine were paying off. “I’m happy to answer that question,” he’d begin brightly, as he wafted off into robotic managementspeak that essentially boiled down to “I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, but none of it was my fault.”
However one of the few questions which managed to solicit a definite answer from the bold James may possibly come back to bite him on the bum. Tom Watson MP asked James Murdoch when he’d become aware of a damaging email which allegedly made it clear that News of the World journos were up to their necks in it. James maintained he’d only found out about the email when the police opened up their new inquiry last year.
But then, as they say, controversy was sparked when two ex-executives of News International claimed that James was ‘mistaken’, cos they’d told him all about it 3 years ago. Perhaps it was a question James should not have been so happy to answer. We shall wait and see. It has been said that this may yet turn out to be a case of the – alleged – attempted cover up being worse than the – alleged – crime. That would be bad news indeed, because the original crime was a good bit worse than an attempted burglary at the Watergate building.
After coorying up to the Murdochs for the past two decades, Labour has seen the light. The light in this case being the oncoming express train that’s about to wreck quite a few careers. It’s hard not to see it coming, so no prizes for foresight Ed.
Ed Miliband, who’s been in charge of the party – at least those parts which are still talking to him – for all of a few months, will reveal his contacts with the Murdoch empire. We will be able to judge the extent to which the party schmoozed with News International when it wasn’t in power or in a position to do anything.
However Ed’s not quite decisive enough to make sure Gordon Brown and Tony Blair do the same. Since they are the Labour figures who were actually in power when the Murdochs obtained their choking stranglehold over the British media you’d be forgiven for imagining that their contacts with Rupe might just be a whole lot more interesting than Ed’s.
But no. They’re no longer relevant because we’re “moving on”, which is what politicians always say when they want us to forget about invading some Middle Eastern country, or that they’d shamelessly ripped off their expenses.
Incidentally, what is it with Ed Miliband and that weird hand thing he does? His advisors must have told him that it’s a strong and decisive chopping movement demonstrating his resolution and strength of will. But really it just makes him look like a refugee from Thunderbirds, and Ed Balls as Brains isn’t going to convince anyone.
But the point of the ‘only looking a safe distance back’ transparency was to give Ed a stick with which to beat David Cameron, who’s still being coy about just how pally he is with Andy Coulson and close neighbour Rebekah Brooks. Rebekah’s husband Charlie went to Dave’s old school where he was bestest chums with Dave’s big brother. Charlie’s a racehorse trainer who went to Eton, which is code for ‘someone rich enough not to have to work for a living who claims to work at their hobby’. He has a lot in common with Eton boy Dave, whose own hobby is politics.
Meanwhile the top levels of the Metropolitan police descended into an orgy of buck passing, allegations surface that other newspapers were involved in phone hacking too, and politicians, police and the media become ever more entangled in a big ball of sleaze, corruption and mutual back-scratching. But the important and crucial point we must all remember is that none of it is remotely the fault of anyone with a public profile. If we’re lucky some minor bit players will be thrown to the wolves.
Westminster thinks we trust them to sort it all out. Then it’s back on the merry-go-round and all is well. Until the next scandal bursts, and no one will be held responsible for that one either.
At least in Scotland we have the option of voting with our feet and leaving them with their mess. It’s becoming a more and more attractive prospect with every passing day.