By John Lloyd
A tabloid story of the purest sort broke last weekend in London. And beyond its salacious details, it serves a valuable lesson: That Britain’s once-embattled gossip industry is alive and well – and possibly even doing some good.
Lord John Sewel is a member of the House of Lords, Britain’s second chamber, comprised mainly of men and women placed there by nomination of the political parties elected to the House of Commons. They can’t pass or stop laws but they can amend them. They are an absurdity in a democratic country. And thus their image, moral standing and perceived usefulness before the electorate are hugely important to their continued existence.
Sewel – in the photographs joyously released last weekend by the tabloid the Sun – showed the 69-year-old man in the company of two prostitutes at a party hosted by his lordship in his Westminster flat. In one photo he’s seen wearing little but a bra and a leather jacket. In another, he is snorting what appears to be a line of cocaine from the breast of one of the women. The depth of his moral descent was underscored by heavily stressed references to his position as deputy speaker (presiding over debates when the speaker is absent) of the chamber, which carries an £84,500 salary and – best of all! – his chairmanship of the Privileges and Conduct Committee.
The comments he was quoted as making to his guests about fellow parliamentarians – that the prime minister is shallow, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnston, “an upper class twit” – were banal, the kind of thing said in a bar after some drinks, but ludicrous coming from one who fills a high political role and was for years the dean of the Faculty of Social Science and Law at Aberdeen University. More appallingly, the Sun alleged he referred to Asian women as “whores”.
He had to go, and did, though with apparent reluctance. In his misery, he provided fun for the Sun and other newspaper readers. Every paper leapt on the story, and everyone loves a good sex and politics scandal. But what trail of damage, after that to himself, has he left behind?
He was a long-time member of the Labour Party, and was made a lord by the former Labour leader Tony Blair. Though he had resigned his party membership on becoming deputy speaker, his former affiliation prompts some quiet satisfaction in the Conservative ranks, and is another setback for a party badly beaten in the May general election. It has an election race for the new leader enlivened only by the entrance into the lists of a far-left member of parliament, Jeremy Corbyn – who is easily leading in the polls among the members. That horrifies the bulk of the parliamentary party who believe his leadership would make Labour unelectable, and force a split. Sewel was saltily dismissive of the merits of all four of his former party’s would-be leaders.
His image and moral damage to the Lords isn’t likely to be just a passing affair. Others in their lordships’ house have, in recent memory, been found to have lied about expenses, for which two were briefly jailed and four suspended. Others (the Sun supplied a handy list) hardly ever turn up; still others were found to be paid lobbyists for such interests as tax havens. Those in favour of a fundamental change to the second chamber – perhaps following both the US and the German example, and fashioning it into a house that represents the nations and regions of the UK – are already using Sewel’s disgrace as a lever for change.
Beyond the Lords, it deepens the cynicism among members of the media and citizenry toward politics and politicians. No point in saying that many men have sleazy episodes in their life that would look ill in a tabloid. Here was one who had a constitutional office of some importance, and who chaired a group of his fellows who sat in judgement on others’ ethics. If lawmakers make an ass of the law and ethicists flout basic morality, open season is declared on their Houses.
Did the Sun do right? Tabloids, especially the two in Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp stable (of which the Sun is one – its Sunday cousin, the News of the World, was closed by a temporarily contrite Murdoch), had an excoriating time when it was discovered that some of their journalists, and those from other tabloids in the Mirror Group, had hacked into mobile phones, blackmailed officials and harassed celebrities. A new regime of state-backed regulation was agreed to by the previous government. Politicians, who had eagerly sought tabloid endorsements, now seek distance.
The tabloids, after a short and unconvincing spell of sackcloth and ashes, said that the new regulator – which none have joined – would “chill” their investigative zeal, and let bad deeds go unrevealed and unpunished. That seems, on Sewel’s example, not to be the case. And rightly so.
No doubt one of the noble lord’s guests had been primed to photograph and describe the scene (it seems the only way the photographs and videos could have been taken); no doubt his privacy was violated. But if lawmakers shrug off the rules, disgrace their office and disregard basic morality, they cannot escape the torture of public display. This may be the way their lordships go: not with grace, but with a snort.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.