For the second time in recent weeks one of Southwark’s MPs finds their private lives subjected to protracted and unwarranted media scrutiny.
Firstly Simon Hughes was hounded by the media for three days following his admission in The Sun to having had homosexual relations.
Simon’s ‘crime’ was to answer quite truthfully the question of “are you gay?” – clearly any person who has sex with both men and woman is more correctly described as bisexual.
The failure of journalists to follow up the question with one of â€œare you bisexual?â€ was largely ignored by a media who preferred to call Hughes a liar and call into question his suitability for the leadership of the Liberal Democrats. It can only ever be a matter of conjecture just how much damage the headlines caused to his campaign.
Now the Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell is being subjected to a frenzy of insinuation that she was aware of her husbandâ€™s financial dealings and that the dealings are of a criminal nature. The allegation isnâ€™t baldly stated because the hinted at â€˜crimeâ€™ cannot be substantiated and therefore would expose the media to legal action.
This is an increasingly recurring and unwelcome pattern in the coverage of public figures. Allegations which could not withstand the scrutiny of a libel trial are hinted at and implied to allow the thrust to be conveyed whilst protecting the paper from substantial costs.
This is a highly duplicitous practice – the very same newspapers now demanding answers from Tessa on issues which are wholly personal and have no apparent impact on her public duties devoted acres of column inches questioning the right of the Adjudication Panel for England to suspend the elected Mayor of London.
It is right that an unelected panel should not have the power to remove, albeit temporarily, an elected politician. However nor should the media be allowed to wage vendettas on highly competent and devoted Members of Parliament simply because itâ€™s cheap copy.
In all coverage of these so called â€™scandalsâ€™ the media and oppositionâ€™s calculation is clear â€“ if they can keep the story running long enough eventually the daily slew of headlines becomes such a barrier to the target getting on with their job that departure becomes inevitable.
The decision of Hughes not to quit the LibDem leadership race amidst the headlines and muck racking set an important precedent. The anecdotal evidence suggests his refusal to depart the leadership campaign and decision to tackle his critics head on shifted public support in his favour.
There is no evidence that the public support these continual witch hunts and fishing exercises. On the contrary the decline in newspaper sales, yet to be matched by an equal increase in online readers, suggests an ever widening gulf between what we’re offered by fleet street and what we want.