The Sunday Mirror’s sting on the Labour MP was not motivated by a desire to serve the public interest, writes Kevin Ovenden
Keith Vaz in all too many ways personified the image 20 years of Westminster politics that so many now want to turn the page on. The politician as minor celebrity, wrapped in a narcissistic embrace with the London media. Politics reduced, as the US commentator Paul Begala once put it, to show business for… well, people lacking in A-list attributes of the real thing in Hollywood.
Vaz’s fall is no loss for the left. But neither is it anything to celebrate, coming as it does at the hands of a craven media enthralled to money and power. Though Vaz is on the anti-Corbyn wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party and supports Owen Smith in the leadership race, the Sunday Mirror, whose sting brought him down, gratuitously crow-barred in a picture of him alongside the left wing Labour leader.
That should alert us to what is going on. Hypocrisy? Well, that is to be found way beyond the MP for Leicester East.
After the Max Mosley v News of the World court case eight years ago, the law on the right to privacy in England tightened. Of course, the nature of the legal system meant that that was of benefit only to those who could afford to hire expensive lawyers and to win "super-injunctions". They prevent publication of a story and any mention even of the injunction sought.
There are serious and debatable issues for socialists about privacy, defamation and the media. Freedom of speech and freedom to publish have historically been a weapon against the wealthy and powerful. But what when the wealthy and powerful increasingly control the mainstream media and invoke “freedom from censorship” to suit their own ends?
The tabloid media has been desperate to break out of the legal constraints that the News of the World case, which it lost, reinforced strongly: the need for a compelling public interest reason for breaching someone’s privacy - which undercover filming and entrapment most definitely are. "Public interest" is not something that the public might be interested in; it is something that it is in the interests of the public to know.
When you read the prurient Sunday Mirror sting, it is obvious that it has gone to great lengths to come up with the strongest public interest defence it could for a story that it would have liked to have run anyway, irrespective of the interests of most people in society or of commitment to investigative journalism.
It could not run the line of “exposing hypocrisy” – an established public interest ground when it comes to certain classes of public figures, including politicians. Over the relevant issues, Vaz has not actually been hypocritical. Indeed, the Sunday Mirror revelations were of little surprise in some quarters.
So it ran the "conflict of interest line" – Vaz’s role on the Home Affairs Select Committee was in conflict with his personal behaviour. It would probably pass muster in court, or at least Vaz did not seek to stop publication.
But people really should know how these things work. There is the Friday late afternoon/Saturday morning phone call from a Sunday tabloid hitting the sting victim with the story.
Then comes the demand for instant comment. That is usually followed by a financial offer if they cooperate with the paper or media organisation. Then the story becomes a candid and exclusive "human interest" account of their struggle with their vices (amply illustrated - these stories are always visuals-dependent, like porn).
The classic pay-off line (or money-shot, to use the porn industry term) used to be the tearful subject of the sting thanking the tabloid for finally allowing them to come to terms with their tormented and sordid life, get counselling, deal with their demons, hope to make amends and re-enter the world of decent, right-thinking people. All thanks to the tabloid – a senior journalist pictured with the contrite miscreant.
The extent to which the sting victims then remained in hock to the paper - and to whomever else may have done them in - used to vary from case to case. It rarely "came out" fully – at least while people were still alive.
Whatever a court might accept, socialists should not fall into lockstep with what is a tendentious and politically dubious “public interest line” from the Sunday Mirror. If someone is teaching Personal and Social Health and Education in an English school, does that meant that there is a "public interest" in the local paper secretly filming them using a "sex drug", which is as legal as alcohol in Britain but not as socially accepted (or lucrative for the Customs and Exercise)? Did somebody mention hypocrisy?
But what about the rich and powerful - we want to know what they are up to, don't we? What about the prima facie conflict of interest of Theresa May as Home Secretary awarding privatisation contracts to G4S which benefited the business of her husband? (Not something the Sunday Mirror is pursuing with undercover, entrapment methods.)
These are issues for socialists to discuss to put forward a case to wider society over. Like everything else – there is what the establishment say is a conflict of interests and what we do; there are their morals and ours.
There is no evidence that the Sunday Mirror or other papers have any intention of turning against the really rich and powerful and their wrongdoing. Indeed, there are several right-wing, extremely well paid senior media figures connected to the rich and powerful who are insulated from the same kind of expose as the Sunday Mirror did on Vaz. Dog does not eat dog.
Moreover, the Sunday Mirror story does not reek with holding the powerful to account - even a puffed up Labour backbench MP, who is not that high up the food chain, by the way. It was full, instead, of salacious and reactionary innuendo, themes and stereotypes which are directed mainly against people who a far from powerful in British society.
None of that means a "defence" of Vaz. What it does mean is that a media, post the Levenson Inquiry into its wrongdoing and that is no friend of the left has taken a step forward re-establishing the old bread and circuses coverage, complete with deliberately obscuring social issues with reactionary titillation:
"Did you know that gay men have this drug called 'poppers' and are known to use 'dating apps' and go to 'sex parties'?"
"No! I didn't. Because I have just been thawed out from cryogenic freeze in the 1950s." (Or - more likely - I must profess my shock also, because I'm not a deviant.)
Two last points.
1) Some have argued that Vaz should have just “come out”. What do people mean? There is the question of what sexual identity (I am gay) as opposed to what sexual activity people engage in and with whom.
So come out as what? As "gay" - or as someone who enjoys group sex with several other men? The public and media reaction to each of those in "modern, liberated" Britain would be very, very different. And it would test the notion that we are a liberated society which looks down only upon “conflicts of interest”.
2) Sex work/prostitution: There is growing debate in society, in parliament and the state about the issue. On the left, discussion is too often obscured by a kind of absolutism - on both sides of the argument. I think that comes partly from not sufficiently rooting the debate materially into the whole of wider society and its manifold discontents.
Be that as it may, there is a pressing need for discussion to address both immediate and social policy issues, and the wider questions relating to the total human emancipation that socialists are above all concerned with.
If anyone thinks that that has been advanced by the Sunday Mirror sting, or that a billionaire-owned and largely right wing media will help advance it, then they are very much mistaken.
Kevin Ovenden is a progressive journalist who has followed politics and social movements for 25 years. He is a leading activist in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, led five successful aid convoys to break the siege on Gaza, and was aboard the Mavi Marmara aid ship when Israeli commandoes boarded it killing 10 people in May 2010. He is author of Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth.
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