Moral Frotteurism

Glen Newey · Byers Hits the Ermine Ceiling

It has been a Grand Guignol for the moral majority. Patricia Hewitt, Stephen Byers and Geoff Hoon, if not Margaret Moran, belong within the inner ring of the Blairite rump. All four are leaving the Commons for good on dissolution. Apparently Monday evening’s PLP meeting saw a mass outpouring of grief and loathing, as backbenchers who aren’t standing down waxed bilious at having their re-election hopes shafted. Hoon and Hewitt may have calculated, after the fiasco of their January putsch against the PM, that they had little left to lose. Their places on the red benches in Another Place have been cancelled. The one Tory MP suckered by Channel 4, Sir John Butterfill, has also hit the ermine ceiling.

The spectacle of a man who is at once self-aggrandising and wheedling uplifts few souls. Byers, whose relationship with the truth as a minister threatened at times to end in divorce, has withdrawn his claims to have saved National Express hundreds of millions by nobbling Andrew Adonis, or to have leaned on Peter Mandelson, the mooted Tesco food-reg fixer. In one of the great acts of political self-sacrifice, he has also turned himself in to the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards.

Channel 4’s Dispatches programme comes of an honourable line of investigative journalism. But it’s one thing to expose existing scandals to the public gaze, another to rig up a Potemkin village for the purposes of entrapment. The entrapment, in turn, is mainly for entertainment. It typifies the symbiosis between moralism, prurience and lucre in the UK commercial press. An old curtain-twitcher calls in the police, claiming to be disgusted by the antics of the couple in the house opposite. The police stare out of the window for a while and tell him they can’t see anything. ‘You can if you climb up onto the wardrobe and use binoculars.’ The situation is actually worse than this. Clearly the Dispatches people went to extraordinary lengths to bring the spectacle to the screen. And the scandal itself was created for that purpose. As with ‘reality’ TV, the show indulges not just public voyeurism, but also its own exhibitionism.

No doubt it’s sickening to know that an apparatchik like Byers who, in another life, might have attained middle-managerial rank in a pet food factory, can swank around with his Blackberry and blag a crateful of wonga from credulous captains of industry. It’s enough to make one rend one’s sackcloth in righteous grief. Hewitt, Byers, Hoon etc. are pitching for north of 3K or 4K a day (expenses extra). We, the viewers, have to get out of bed for far less. How comforting then to know, as the grafters on screen don’t, that in fact it’s a stitch-up. For those stuck, willy-nilly, in a hair-shirt, moral frotteurism can prove irresistible.

As with the expenses dégringolade last year, gross hucksterism prompts calls for more rules. There is clearly a case for regulating political lobbying more generally, though as Byers’s Mandy boast shows, haggling and poking can go on at the back door. In any case, Byers et al. didn’t have to declare an interest to the Register, since at that point they were merely in talks about talks. Due process, however bolstered, will prove a dead letter if it can be trumped by moral outrage from the press or the telly. In a tartuffean Olympiad, two strands of bad faith coalesce: voters’ resentment of politicians, and politicians’ fear of voters. Of course, they also fear media organisations like Channel 4, which is a business. In shaming MPs for public sport, it panders to the same commercial impulses as the politicians it pillories.


  • 26 March 2010 at 2:33pm
    Geoff Roberts says:
    I don't know who deserves the most sympathy - the British left for having had Hoon and Co. as their representatives in parliament or the Americans for having a bunch of pre-1939 reactionaries as their representatives hooting down the health care bill. On balance, I think the Americans get it by a groan.

  • 28 March 2010 at 11:19am
    Geoff Atkinson says:
    Extraordinary lengths? Not so sure about that, we hired an office by the hour, there was nothing on the shelves, no paperwork, no staff, the website was rudimentary, and the company was established a week beforehand. This was part of the point, if they couldn't see through this then what else had they missed over the last twelve years in office? These were people who'd made important judgements (war for one) yet here lacked any common sense. Though sadly not avarice. The truth is we offered an easy escape for anyone prepared to check first and open their eyes. And the words were their words, not ours; no-one can prompt someone to say 'cab for hire'. Hardly a Potemkin village, more Finger and Honk's tent in Nuts In May.
    Yes it may be entertaining - but it seems somewhat churlish to complain that the public have been allowed to laugh at those who have let them down. Channel 4 the problem? Setting aside it is still a public body and the argument slightly lost, I promise that when the first national Marxist TV broadcaster comes on air we at Vera will be delighted to make programmes for them. Though I suspect their agenda may be even more earnest than Glen is advocating. Can I, soberly and earnestly, request maybe it is time to lighten up a little. Delve deeper and spend more than the one thousand pounds we did and we'd be accused of entrapment or wasting the public's cash, deliver a telling insight into the dark arts of lobbying and we're accused of trivializing. For once I'd argue humour and insight do mix pretty well.
    Sorry to pour cold water.
    Geoff Atkinson
    Executive Producer
    Politicians For Hire

  • 31 March 2010 at 9:06pm
    Robert Hunter says:
    I share Glen Newey's view of the 'humiliation television', that poisonous mix of money, moralizing and prurience which fills up so much screen time. All the same, I'm inclined to agree with Geoff Atkinson that, on this occasion, the investigative entrapment was justified. Aside from the questionable moral or legal issues of their intended actions, Hoon, Hewitt and Byers were still elected representatives prepared to trade on their public office in ways which would breach the propriety of that office. As for the 'trap', Dispatches surely gave them a fighting chance: someone even vestigially on the Left might have smelled a rat with a company - Anderson Perry Associates - calling itself by an inversion of the name of a prominent historian and long-standing editor of New Left Review.

  • 1 April 2010 at 9:18pm
    mandypeat says:
    An office – if only by the hour , a website – if only rudimentary, and a company – if only on paper, does strike me as extraordinary lengths (and incredibly good value at only £1000); certainly greater lengths than Candid Camera used to go to. The point? To show that people who make important decisions like going to war are gullible and lacking common sense when it comes to their own potential enrichment? Well, who isn’t? It really doesn’t prove that these people were gullible or lacking in common sense when it came to making political decisions, anymore than being regular lottery-ticket buyers might.
    Newey’s worry – which you misunderstand – is that laughing at them for being plonkers, fun as it might be, personalizes and obscures the serious point about how parts of our political process are bought. The commercial imperatives which Byers et al. are ridiculed for responding to also have a role to play in delivering infotainment, even on Channel 4, and it is absurd to say that the alternative is a Marxist broadcaster. I wish you would make a programme which did indeed deliver “telling insights into the dark arts of lobbying”.

  • 1 April 2010 at 11:34pm
    Phil Edwards says:
    I think the main point was that they were offering themselves for corruption; the fact that they were gullible and stupid about it was just a bonus.