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Westminster’s Festina Affair

20 July 2011

2:04 PM

20 July 2011

2:04 PM

Cycling fans will recall the Festina Affair that crippled the 1998 version of the Tour de France. The discovery that the peloton could be considered a travelling pharmacy did not surprise veteran cycling aficionados, even if the extent and sophistication of the doping was enough to shock some. Entire teams withdrew from a race that, with grim inevitability, quickly became known as the Tour de Farce.

Well, this phone-hacking scandal is, for the press and parliament, a comparable scandal. Just as it was no secret that doping was a staple part of the professional cyclist’s diet, so it was hardly hidden that the newspapers, especially but not exclusively, the tabloids had a range of "dark arts" which they used to fill the dossiers they kept on public figures and, consequently, their newspapers.

And all of this was, if not fine, then accepted as a part of the price of doing business. Perhaps this was regrettable but it was the way of the world and there seemed no point in getting too upset by the realities of the world since, well, that was just the way it was and you couldn’t do a damn thing about it. So, yes, everyone "knew" but everyone preferred to keep quiet. This didn’t mean everyone approved of hw it was, just that doing things differently seemed impossible. Of course everyone took drugs! Of course the tabloids were disgusting! Of course politicians danced with dirty partners!

But a little sunlight is a dangerous thing. You can only pretend – and draw comfort from that pretence – for so long. When reality intrudes it’s no longer possible to maintain a comfy silence. It has to be confronted and you have a choice: accept it and carry on as before or confront the problem and reform your practices. That may take some time but you cannot pretend everything is just the same as it ever was and nothing can or will ever change.

As with cycling – whose long and difficult journey back to "health" is not yet complete – so with the phone-hacking scandal. And just as the peloton is "cleaner" than it was 15 years ago, so Fleet Street is probably cleaner than it was in the late 1990s and early years of this century. Exposure has forced reform and the confirmation of what we always suspected but can no longer ignore has put an end to at least some of the excesses of the past. That doesn’t mean all is fine and dandy, merely that there’s less room for wilfull hypocrisy than once there was.

The News of the World may have been, in some senses, the most egregious offender but, just like the Festina team, it was not the only one. Operation Motorman demonstrated that all newspaper groups were happy to ask few questions, so as to maintain plausible deniability, about the provenance of the information they needed to buttress their stories. Similarly, team owners were often happy to elave doping to their riders and their individual arrangements with personal doctors.

The further problem was that just as the drugs cyclists used became "too good", moving from pills taken for survival to injections used to triumph, so the "techniques" used by the newspapers became too sophisticated, too widespread and too intrusive to be wholly palatable any longer. Localised and grubby corruption gave way to quasi-professional intelligence operations from which almost no-one was safe. Simlarly, the odd bent copper selling tidbits to the tabloids is one thing; the cosyiness of the relatioship between seior officers and newspaper executives quite another. A little of this may be accepted; too much of it and it becomes intolerable. This is not, clearly, a question of legal or even ethical boundaries but of proportion and what seems or smells, in broad terms, just about acceptable.

And, as was true of cycling, they’re all in it together. Politicians of all parties both main parties are implicated. Cameron’s deal with Andy Coulson was a shabby thing but perhaps a necessary one. At the very least it was understandable. But Cameron was, as has been pointed out repeatedly, hardly the only one. The death-hug Rupert Murdoch offered Gordon Brown yesterday was one of the highlights of the proceedings.

So, yes, the clock has stopped on Cameron’s watch and it falls to him to sort out the mess that everyone knew was always there but preferred not to contemplate too deeply or thoroughly. Sunlight is a terrible thing, however, and so doing nothing or pretending you didn’t know has ceased to be an option. That means, just as was the case during the parliamentary expenses affair, there has to be a cleansing and a number of sacrifices for the greater good before there can be a kind of quasi-amnesty for everyone else – police, politicians and journalists – and everyone can, as they say, "move on".

Much of the outrage – like that witnessed in professional cycling – has a synthetic quality. It exists but it’s not as real as it seems. And, because we kind of knew about all this long ago, the scandal is some sense confirming matters not revealing them. The public is not as shocked as it pretends to be. Much of this was really already priced-in and one reason why it may not be as damaging as some think and why, like cycling, the game will go on, albeit with greater openess and a rhetorical commitment to doing things differently in the future. And that, in the end, will probably be enough for most people.

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