What I’m about to write should be stuck on a high shelf labelled ‘opinion’. You can add labels to that shelf yourself, should you wish, perhaps reading ‘abject nonsense’, ‘old-fashioning thinking’, or ‘the ridiculous moralising of a backward age’. You can even, if you’re so inclined, describe it as a ‘thought crime’. I can’t really help believing what I believe and thinking what I think. To do otherwise would be to submit to a form of group mind control and, despite the current state of political debate in the UK, I’m not sure we’re at that stage. At least: not yet.
This last week, a collective wisdom emerged regarding the adventures of John Whittingdale, Culture Secretary. That wisdom has it that our man at Culture is single and therefore has the right to a private life. Whatever he enjoys doing, wherever he enjoys doing it, and with whomsoever he enjoys doing whatever it is that’s being done: it’s none of our business so long as the what, the where, and the who all remain legal. He once dated a sex worker? A dominatrix? And previously he’d dated a porn actress? Well, so what? Nothing to see here. Now close the door and don’t turn back if you hear squeals of exquisite agony…
Whether you agree or disagree with this proposition, your viewpoint will be dictated by your age, education, wealth, gender, politics, and pretty much everything that defines you as a human being. Myself, I certainly sympathise with the argument that Whittingdale has rights yet I don’t hold with the general premise that all private lives should be set back from the public gaze. There are many areas where an individual’s private actions or beliefs would be of valid interest to the public. When we elect an official or one of our elected officials moves into a cabinet position, it is surely beneficial to the public to know more about the person to whom they’re entrusting so much power. We should know if our Home Secretary has ever had a serious drug problem, if our Education Secretary has ever beaten their kids. Is the new Health Secretary a theist who believes in miracles rather than modern medicine? Is the Defence Secretary a pacifist or a coward or did he skip National Service? Sometimes these questions will come down to matters of old fashioned morality. They are the old questions which have got older still in an age of reformed values. Is the minister an alcoholic, a serial adulterer, or does he consort with prostitutes?
You might still argue that none of this is any of our business. More bluntly, you might even ask: is it really in our interest to know which odd peccadilloes our elected officials enjoy in private? Alcoholism, adultery, and the use of prostitutes are not illegal. But does that make those habits ethical? Does it make them moral? There is a distinction, of course. Ethics are the values we generally agree upon but morality is individual. We might both agree that it’s wrong to kill wild birds, for example, but perhaps only one of us would think it our moral duty to feed them in the winter.
Rather than being matters of ethics, then, these are moral questions. They become even more difficult to address when they involve issues of sexuality where our boundaries are unique to each of us. We might all agree that consensual fumbling between two (or more) individuals is none of our business yet it’s harder to accept the primacy of that ideal when presented with an example that transgresses our individual moral code. We might say that we’d ignore everything an MP does that’s legal and consensual but does that really mean that a bit of ‘swinging’ is acceptable within the member’s lounge? How about boot sniffing? Sadism? How about sending photographs of their genitals to the Downing Street cat? In a world of prevalent sexting, is it reasonable for an MP to enjoy what is the US is known as ‘doing a Weiner’, after former congressman Anthony Weiner and his weiner?
The answer to all these questions would be ‘yes’ if we’re really serious about our liberal attitudes. To answer ‘yes’ would mean that there’s really no shame. Whatever your vice, it is a vice no longer. It is merely a choice, a natural craving, a predisposition. If a future Prime Minister were single and enjoyed the sex life usually enjoyed by the more hirsute members of a boy band, then, as a fully liberal and tolerant society, we’d be quite supportive. We would turn a blind eye, even to the ubiquitous sex tape…
I pose that, really, as a thought experiment. I don’t know the answer. You might share a libertine’s view of sex or you might be closer to Philip Larkin who described it as ‘like asking someone else to blow your nose for you’. The point is that none of us share exactly the same moral ground. By my own standards, I do know that I’m extremely uncomfortable with an MP and the chairman of the Culture, Media and Sport select committee taking part in an online dating scheme whereby he ends up meeting a professional dominatrix who he then takes on a free trip to the MTV awards in Amsterdam. Subsequent details released by the Mail on Sunday make me even more uncomfortable.
Even if every one of Whittingdale’s actions are permitted under the law and under parliamentary rules, and even if the British public is largely indifferent to the story, I still retain the right to say that, to me, it looks pretty squalid and hints towards a psychology that should not be in a position to decide the important matters of press regulation.
There are reasons why our culture puts so more store in monogamous relationships. Even when you strip away the religious baggage, marriage still means something to a great many people. Though many of the taboos of sex have gone, there are still reasons why, for example, access to pornography is restricted and why prostitution remains a vice, even if it’s largely a legal one. ‘O who shall me deliver whole / From bonds of this tyrannic soul?’ asked the body in Andrew Marvell’s poem, ‘A Dialogue between the Soul and the Body’. As the metaphysical poets realised, we are divided creatures. We feel the cravings of our bodies and also the moral restraints of our higher being. If pornography were simply a release for bodily pressures, as Larkin would say, like blowing your nose, then it would not be a vice. Yet it remains a vice because of its dangers. It is a vice that would know no end. Our physical passion operates against our will and makes us irrational, servile to a constant demand for bodily satisfaction. It would be fair, I think, to consider Whittingdale’s private life as being indicative of his psychology; his lusts, desires, wants, and habits. That is why the John Whittingdale story is an important one. It suggests that an insalubrious character sits in the Department of Culture, deciding the mores of our arts, news, and entertainment, and deciding what is or is not in the public’s interest to know.
Newspapers may claim that there’s no public interest in knowing what John Whittingdale did but, post Leveson, they would say that, wouldn’t they? They are staking a claim the moral high ground whilst slamming the BBC for breaking the story after it broke in Private Eye last week and the internet newsletter, Popbitch, the Thursday before. Yet the same high moral tone was absent when they recently gloried in the private details of Jeremy Corbyn’s distant relationship with Dianne Abbot. They quote no high ethical standard as they seek to unblock the high court injunction preventing them from reporting the sexual activities of one half of a ‘celebrity’ couple. Where, you might even ask, was the public interest in exposing the sordid adventures of Lord John Sewel?
It’s been some years since we’ve known a good political sex scandal to break in the UK so it’s reasonable to assume that we’re lost the knack of asking these difficult questions. What we’re seeing across the media and the social space is our sudden exposure to matters that makes us explore our own moral boundaries. It leaves us confused as to what constitutes shame in these post-shame days. Yet as people cry ‘there was nothing wrong’, then perhaps we should look at what’s really at stake. The public’s trust in elected officials has never been lower. Conspiracy theories merge with justifiable doubts about government transparency. Whittingdale decides the rules dictating the degree to which our media can investigate inconvenient truths. In these matters, transparency is vital, even if the stories are harmful to those that regulate our freedoms. Whittingdale himself should know this himself, given that his own half-brother was shamed by the press in 2014. Charles Napier was the treasurer of the ‘Paedophile Information Exchange’ and was convicted of child sexual abuse offences thanks, in part, to the testimony of Francis Wheen, the deputy editor of Private Eye who waived his right to anonymity to explain how Napier had ‘put his hand down my gym shorts’.
It’s why this story is too important to simply write off as an invasion of privacy. It is a battle for our right to know what kind of people we place in positions of authority and that is surely one of the most important rights we possess.