Friday, 17 January 2014

Why the French are more mature than we are

Probably not the man himself.
OMG! There’s a bloke – in another country – and he’s had an affair! Hold the front page!

I always wanted to be able to yell that. Well, the ‘front page’ bit, at any rate. And 20 years ago next month, I had the chance.

I was a duty chief sub for a national daily newspaper and shortly before we went to bed that night, the news chugged through that Stephen Milligan, the Conservative MP for Eastleigh had been found dead in somewhat compromising circumstances.

It seemed that he had accidentally killed himself during a spot of autoerotic asphyxiation, wearing only stockings and suspenders, with a bin bag over his head, an orange segment in his mouth and an electrical cord around his neck.

“Hold the front page!” I yelled to our small but perfectly formed team – not that we knew all these details at the time.

Now usually, I’d be the first in line to say that, beyond the man’s death, there was no public interest aspect in the details of that death being so widely revealed and discussed.

However, what changed this was that the story came at a time when John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign was in full swing, and rather seemed to conflict with such a stated governmental aim.

If only we’d known then what we know now about Major and Edwina. Who’d a thunk that, eh?

Anyway, that was the context. In other words, there was a public interest angle.

Tim Yeo, who was a junior minister in Major’s government at around the same time, stood up at one autumn Conservative Party conference and denounced single mothers as the cause of every problem in the country.

A couple of months later, he was revealed to be having an affair with a single woman who was pregnant by him.

In other words, it was an approach of: ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

As such, there was a legitimate public interest angle to publishing the story.

Of course, there are plenty of circumstances in the UK where there is absolutely no public interest for publication of a salacious story. Some of the public being interested doesn’t count.

The News of the World had to try to fabricate a public interest angle in order to justify the stories about Max Mosely, for instance. It didn’t work, but the damage had already been done – and papers sold.

We seem to have a peculiar attitude in the UK – and not only the unholy combination of prurience and prudery that sees people lap up salacious stories and then justify it to themselves by being judgmental about the very thing that they’ve just been entertained by reading.

There’s also a widespread series of weird attitudes toward privacy, ranging from the spectacularly crass ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong you have nothing to hide’ to ones whereby anyone in public life has no right to a private life, to a position whereby you lose privacy incrementally dependent on how much you earn.

Then there are spurious arguments such as those about Ryan Giggs: ‘Well, he’s a role model’.

Who said so – did he describe himself as a role model; or others? Should he be penalised for what others say about him?

If he declared himself a role model, then perhaps you do have a public interest justification for publishing details of how he shagged a few women – although it also remains to be seen why we, as a whole, remain so utterly obsessed with monogamy and seem to experience a collective fit if anyone else’s life experience doesn’t actually fit this subjective – and some would say unrealistic – ethical stance.

The French are different.

Buy a newspaper on the other side of the Channel and it will not be full of stories about who shagged who, who fell out of a nightclub at 4am and so forth.

So it was something of a surprise to see that a gossip magazine had decided to publish the ‘news’ that President François Hollande had been having an affair.

Outside of the ‘yuck: who’d do it with him?’ questions – do some people really not get the sexual allure of power? – it seems that what has subsequently upset parts of the British press is that the French have not made more of it.

After all, how dare they not be as infantile about sexual relationships involving consenting adults as we appear to be, in general.

The biggest concern in much of France seems to be that the president was riding pillion on a scooter.

The allegations about the affair are not new, but publishing photographs of – allegedly – the couple is and certainly breaks the country’s culture of the private lives of politicians remaining, err, private.

The ‘other woman’, Julie Gayet, is set to sue Closer for invasion of privacy.

Good luck to her.

What happens between consenting adults is nobody else’s business – unless there is a genuine public interest angle, as illustrated above.

In the case of a former French president, François Mitterrand, the public were not worried about him having an affair – only whether or not he used public money for private business.

The same matters are the only relevant ones in the case of Hollande.

So, dear France – please do not go down the route of commoditising people’s private lives for the financial benefit of a few.

And for anyone who really thinks that they have a right to know who is shagging who, just because it's sex or because of their own set of values – grow up.

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