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A Westminster witch hunt is in nobody’s interests

31 October 2017

5:02 PM

31 October 2017

5:02 PM

Did a male MP allow three other men to urinate on him, for sexual gratification? That is one of the more exotic suggestions on a spreadsheet of allegations and rumours about MPs and their conduct that is circulating at Westminster. ‘Video exists of three males urinating on him’, the spreadsheet is said to record.

That may not strike you as a pleasant notion, but this an account that bears thinking about closely. First, is it true? I have no idea. I’ve heard the rumour, or variants on it, several times since the MP concerned was first elected. Lots of people have. I know the name of the MP allegedly involved. Lots of people do. Let’s suppose it’s not true, that it didn’t happen. How should that MP act? He could make a public denial, but that would put his name fully into the public domain in connection with a false but memorably lurid rumour. That would likely not be to his benefit. So his other option is to stay silent while people repeat falsehoods about him. Again, not a happy outcome.

Now let us assume the contrary: that the story is true. He was urinated on, voluntarily and for pleasure. His choices in this scenario are similar: stay quiet about his private sexual preferences and history, or disclose them to the world. Opinions will divide on that. Some will feel that an MP who did such a thing, even long ago before entering public life, should reveal that so his electorate can judge his conduct and character. Others will feel it’s none of our damn business and has no bearing on his ability as a legislator and representative.

But wherever you are on that spectrum, I hope you’d agree that it is difficult, on the face of it, to see what this story has to do with concerns that Westminster has a problem with powerful men abusing that power to compel women into sexual activity.

I admit the small theoretical possibility that our supposed MP used his position to threaten and cajole his supposed urinators into participation against their will. But if that’s not the case, I don’t see what this ‘story’ has to do with Westminster’s subculture of grabbing and groping with impunity, beyond simple prurience. And as such I’m uneasy about seeing this account included in reporting about the (very real) issue of abusive or inappropriate relations between senior men and less senior women (and men) in politics.

That’s partly because I’m concerned about the injustice being done to our supposed MP. Rumours are part of political life and I suppose always will be. Many senior public figures live with rumours that defy all disproving: in the 20-odd years since I first came to Westminster, I’ve been categorically assured that various senior politicians have been guilty of drug abuse, sexual adventurism, petty crime and even domestic violence. None of those rumours has been proven, but none has gone away.

Once, us media types applied a certain filter to such rumours: we checked to see if they were true, and if we couldn’t establish that they were, we didn’t report them. There are, and were, many critics who regarded that filtering as a form of capture, a sign that political hacks were part of the system, colluding with those on whom they report.  I don’t dismiss that criticism; after 16 years as a Lobby journalist, I developed some quite significant doubts about the flaws and frailties of the Lobby system. But I still believe in that old fashioned, cosy establishment practice of checking an allegation before reporting it. And yes, I know: Twitter, blogs, no secrets any more, social media, blah blah.

But none of that makes it right to accept and spread unproven rumours with a shrug. It’s not just unfair to the people directly involved, it also perpetuates the idea that all our elected representatives are especially weird or depraved or both. And they’re not, in most cases; most of them live the same ordinary lives as the rest of us. The largely mistaken idea that MPs are different is, I think, the root of many of political and even social problems.

My other concern about a spreadsheet that includes our supposedly video-recorded MP is that that document — and the reporting of it — risks conflating eye-catching but voluntary and essentially harmless acts with involuntary and therefore harmful ones. And that can only distract and diffuse public attention and political energy away from the place it should be: cases where men in political power use that power to cause real sexual harm to others and get away with it. Worse, it allows those who would dismiss this whole issue a chance to do just that: you can already hear the talk of ‘witch hunts’ and suggestions that ‘normal’ behaviour is now being penalised. I don’t think that’s quite true yet, but I fear this story could easily develop in a way that makes it so.

Yes, we all like a bit of salacious smut in our reporting, especially about MPs. But for the sake of our politics and, especially, people who have suffered real harm and real injustice, we should all apply a little bit more care and judgment to the way we talk and think about this stuff and the people involved – whether or not they enjoy being peed on.

PS I should note here that one of the blogs that has done most to promote the rumour-reporting approach to politics, Paul Staines’ Guido Fawkes site, has actually been rather more responsible in covering this spreadsheet than some more traditional outlets, redacting more of the details of unproven claims. Mr Staines and I have had some differences in the past, and I still struggle a bit with his newfound commitment to demanding respectful treatment for women in politics, given that not too long ago he used to tag pictures of female MPs and journalists ‘tottywatch’ and do nothing to remove the horrible, sexualised comments that used to accumulate below the line. But credit where it’s due. Well done, Guido.  


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