Anarchy in the UK?

Chris Sheil has brought us a marvellous story – you read it first in the Australian blogosphere (unless you’re a Guardian subscriber, of course). The Tory Shadow Minister for the Arts, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, also editor of The Spectator, has had to resign after lying to his leader, Michael Howard, about his extra-marital affair with Petronella Wyatt, a Spectator columnist. His initial denial of the affair as “an inverted pyramid of piffle” was fatally controverted by Petronella’s mother, Lady Wyatt’s response to a journalist’s question as to whether her daughter was having an affair with Mr A. B. De Pf. J., MP – “Not anymore.” Go immediately to Chris’ place to read his inimitable take on all the juicy gossip.

As a long time fan of the movie Scandal, I’m of course appropriately titillated by the shocking revelations in the heart of the Tory establishment.

However, a serious point arises – as Chris notes, the UK Opposition Leader fired Mr A. B. de Pf. Johnson, MP not for his carnal sins (it looks like the Catholic proprietors of The Spectator will pre-empt God’s judgement there) but rather for not telling the truth. Which in itself is rather reassuring – it’s a long time in this particular outpost of Westminster democracy since lying has been a sackable offence for frontbenchers.

Are there antipodean echoes of the strange affair of Mr de Pfeffel Johnson, Ms Wyatt and the question of political accountability?

UPDATE: David Tiley at Barista also blogs on Borisgate, and reveals that our Boris has a blog, and that the glamorous Ms Wyatt is known to friends and intimates as ‘Petsy’.

THIS JUST IN: From the SMH: Today, newspapers jumped on the latest gaffe from “Bumbling Boris” when he was pictured wearing flowery patterned shorts and a skull-and-crossbones bandana outside his home.

One of the few casualties of the recent Australian election on the Coalition side was the former member for Parramatta, Ross Cameron, who combined a public confession of an affair with an “exotic solicitor” (whatever that may mean), with a practice of sending out Christmas cards with pictures of his smiling family and appropriate Biblical verses. I’d be inclined to agree with Michael Howard that MPs’ private lives are their own business, but perhaps Mr Cameron’s loud trumpetting of his “family values” and “Bible-believing Christian” credentials contributed to the willingness of the media to run with the story. He was probably also unwise not to enquire of the “exotic solicitor”‘s flatmate what her occupation was – she turned out to be a member of the Canberra Press Gallery – hence his pre-emptive confession.

Despite the inherent and undeniable delights of the story Chris blogged about, on reflection, it might also be worth pondering whether this sort of story has any implications in Howardian “Family First” Australia.

UK politics has always been marked by (often very kinky and entertaining) sex scandals, but the public/private line has mostly remained intact. Even John Profumo was not sacked for his affair with Christine Keeler, but rather because of connections to a shady character from the USSR Embassy which this liaison entangled him in. In the current climate of blurring the political and the religious, and the profile given to “family values” pre- and post- election in this country, how far do the Liberals and Nationals want to push this line – could there be a worry that the media might do a “Cameron” and investigate the private lives of the public upholders of morality?

Or, as I would argue, are we all better off with our private lives kept private and public judgements of accountability being made on public criteria? Oh, and with the Government staying out of the business of laying down the law about how we make private decisions? As another notable Briton, the late film director Derek Jarman, suggested in his film Edward II, shouldn’t politicians “get their laws off our bodies”?

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

My god, Boris and Petrol are having sex. Whatever next?

Basically, anyone should be able to fuck whoever, however and whyever they want. If they aren’t already.

But the moment they join, espouse or advance the views of a political party that claims private morality is a public issue, then by all means out the buggers – preferably with webcam footage we can all download.

I am so looking forward to this current political “family values” campaign going off the rails – as they always do.

“Back to basics!” – John Major.
“Back to my place!” – Major’s backbenchers.

Francis Xavier Holden
2022 years ago

I don’t think I’m having it off with you already yet Nabokov. I’m not in a party that claims private morality is a public issue. Webcam on. So shed your skin and lets get started.

Nabakov
Nabakov
2022 years ago

Yer not in a confessional booth either Holden FX.

yobbo
2022 years ago

Sorry, I don’t seem to recall the emphasis on “family values” in the election campaign. Maybe it’s another of Howard’s “dog whistles” (that is, things the left would like people to believe that Howard stands for, even though it might not necessarily be the case).

It never ceases to amaze me how you guys can relate anything in the world, (in this case, an English sex scandal) to John “Satan” Howard.

Geoff Honnor
Geoff Honnor
2022 years ago

When Bob Hawke roots his way across the political landscape it’s lovable Labor larrikinism. When Boris
Johnson does it, it’s obviously emblematic of the destruction of political decency as we know it. I think both views are a bit of a stretch.

Spiros
Spiros
2022 years ago

Yobbo, while John Howard didn’t make any explicit mention (that I remember) of family values in the election, the point is Ross Cameron made an entire career out of it.

And there was a lot made of Family First during and immediately after the election campaign, including Howard sitting down and having a cosy chat, and more the point, being seen to be having a cosy chat, very with the FF hierarchy.

The problem with conservative politicians espousing family vaues is that so few of them practice what they preach. They bonk extra-maritally, they procure abortions when accidents happen, and more than a few bat for the other team .

Those that do these things but shout family values from the pulpit get exposed as hypocrites, and rightly so. Those that do these things and say nothing about family values are left alone.

Alan Green
2022 years ago

It’s in the UK that the public/private line isn’t intact. All a journalist needs to do is ask a pollie about an his/her extramarital affair, and when they deny it, it’s all of a sudden in the public interest to print, because they lied.

In Australia the media still don’t cross the public/private line unless invited. Ross Cameron isn’t a counter-example because he publicly declared his infidelity before the media ran with the story.

Let’s hope the Aussie media continue to stay out of pollies bedrooms, and the pollies continue to stay out of ours.

Yobbo: Since you can’t hear the dog whistles, I can only suppose that you are a cat.

cs
cs
2022 years ago

Geoff, you seem rather pre-emptive. I’m imagining a stunning political comeback for boris the blonde bombshell via a mega tell-all blockbuster penned by the porcelain hand of the vivacious daughter of the late Lord of Weeford.

James Farrell
James Farrell
2022 years ago

After the election I commented at JQ’s that I detected a double standard in regard to Ross Cameron. I don’t see why he’s more of a hypocrite than any other politician who breaks his marriage vows. Either you mean it when you promise fidelity or you don’t, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a strict churchgoer or an atheist.

Cameron’s espousal of family values is irrelevant as far as I can see. Everyone knows that ‘family values’ is a just shorthand for ultraconservative policy positions on abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research, and has nothing much to do with personal commitment to one’s own family.

Cameron’s portrayal of himself (in past elections) as the perfect family man looks cynical in hindsight, but they all do that.

The Cameron story illustrates Mark’s point that honesty counts for little here in Australia. If he had denied the affairs he might have gotten back in, even if people doubted him.

There were plenty of good reasons to vote him out – Jason Soon had some good ones, I recall – and I certainly didn’t vote for him (I live in Parramatta). But I don’t think hypocrisy is one of them.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

What position should the media take with say a Cameron or a Clinton if they ask them about their infidelity and they simply say ‘I don’t comment on personal matters as you know. Do you have any further questions on public policy matters?’

Ken Parish
Ken Parish
2022 years ago

Observa

The position in Australia is somewhat different from that in the US, because the US has a broad constitutional guarantee of free speech whereas Australia has a much narrower one limited to political subjects. Hence, in the US defamation laws generally don’t prevent the media from reporting the marital infidelities of public figures, whereas in Australia they do unless the private conduct clearly impacts the public/political sphere. I suspect that the differing defamation laws have much more to do with the Australian media’s more circumspect approach to sexual scandals involving public figures than any inherent journalistic respect for the privacy of public figures.

The irony of the Cameron situation is that his fling with the “exotic solicitor” with the Press Gallery flatmate may not actually have been publicly exposed at all had Cameron not pre-emptively “outed” himself. There have been numerous defamation cases about the private/public boundary for public figures where the material has involved salacious gossip e.g. extra-marital affairs.

The best known is probably a case between cricketer Greg Chappell and the Channel Nine Current Affair program, which was threatening to run a story about his (alleged) propensity for extra-marital dalliance. Chappell successfully sought an injunction to restrain screening of the story, because he was able to convince the court that the story simply didn’t as a matter of law involve a matter of public interest even if its allegations were true i.e. it was in the private rather than public sphere. Channel Nine tried to argue that the fact that Chappell was (at the time) a member of the ACB national selection body meant that he was in a position of trust and that young cricketers looked up to him as a respected role model etc etc, and that therefore this was enough to make the matter one of legitimate “public interest”. The argument failed.

The Cameron situation is arguably closer to the line, in that he was involved in political life and made “family values” a prominent part of his political campaigning. Nevertheless, it may well be that the mere fact his serial adultery revealed him as both hypocritical and personally dishonest (towards his wife) might not have been enough to support a “public interest” fair comment or qualified privilege defence to defamation proceedings. Certainly, if I’d been asked to advise on the story in advance of publication, I would probably have advised that the prosepcts of successfully defending it were somewhat doubtful.

observa
observa
2022 years ago

The Chappell case is interesting in light of the AFL and ARL recently sticking their moral noses into what goes on in player’s hotel rooms. Also the fact that the law inevitably gets caught up in these sorts of moral dilemma debates. I guess for the relgious they have a higher moral compass and judge and jury.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2022 years ago

Spiros, one of Howard’s more explicit dog whistles was his promise to ensure that all cabinet submissions have a “Family Impact Statement” attached to them. I pity the public servants who have to come up with these. This was in the context of his embrace of FF and their preferences. In Queensland, Barnaby Joyce was also running around the shop and placing ads in the Courier-Mail rattling on about values and abortion.