David Frum: For Britain’s press maybe being gay is more than enough

David FrumA rumour — even a juicy one — won’t usually tempt mainstream
media into publishing an unsubstantiated news story. The British press,
according to David Frum, is another story, to judge by recent stories
about a former Foreign Secretary’s sex life.  
you are a newspaper editor. Your reporters whisper to you that a
certain important politician is gay. The man’s married, which makes the
whisper juicy. He’s expressed conservative views on sex in the past,
which makes it juicier. But you face two problems:

First, you can’t prove anything.

Second, you can’t explain why the story — even if true — concerns anybody other than the politician’s wife.

In most countries, in most places, those two problems would quash the story then and there.

In the United States, for example, most media outlets refused to
discuss the personal life of Senator Larry Craig until he was arrested
in an airport restroom for soliciting a police officer. In Canada,
major media outlets have shunned rumours that this or that cabinet
minister was leading a secret sexual life. The media in Germany and
France are even more reticent.

But the British press is different. Can’t prove anything? Nobody’s business? All the better! We’ll find a way!

Last week, they found a way with William Hague, the British Foreign
Secretary, now at the centre of a buzzing Westminster controversy over
sniggering allegations that he got up to something naughty with a
handsome young male staffer.

Hague, now 49, has been a figure in British politics since he spoke
at a Conservative party conference at the precocious age of 16. Hague
has been the target of rumors about his sexuality very nearly as long.

Now suddenly those rumors have forced their way onto BBC’s Today
program, the front page of the Financial Times and inside even the
legendarily reticent New York Times.

The back story here is long and probably more complicated than you want, but it boils down to three data points:

(1) Hague hired an arguably under-qualified, but good-looking,
25-year old male aide for a rare special assistant job in the Foreign

(2) During the recent election campaign, the aide had worked as a
driver to Hague. On at least two occasions, Hague and the aide shared a
hotel room.

(3) The British newspaper The Mail on Sunday last week published a
year-old photograph of the two together looking informal and friendly.

Out of this chain of events has whipped a media firestorm. The aide
has resigned. On Wednesday, Hague issued a statement assuring the
public that he and his wife of 13 years were “very happily married” but
had sadly suffered a sequence of miscarriages, including one last
summer. The Westminster press and political world has now decided that
Hague — a former Conservative party leader, the best debater on the
Conservative bench and a key party fundraiser — is suddenly politically
damaged goods.

The Hague incident follows admissions of homosexuality in recent days
by two junior ministers in the Conservative-Liberal-Democrat
coalition: public-spending minister David Laws and prison minister
Chris Blunt. But in both the Laws and the Blunt cases, the press was
reporting something tangible. Both men had resigned their offices: Laws
because he had been caught in an ethics violation (he had paid
government money to rent a room in his partner’s house — a big no-no);
Blunt, a married man, to deal with the upheaval in his personal life.

In the Hague case there is only innuendo, sniggering and whispering —
if you can call a front-page story in the Financial Times
“whispering.” There are elaborate attempts to suggest a public-spirited
rationale for the reports: After all, if Hague were gay, and if the
aide were also gay, and if the two of them were intent on having an
affair, then it would be improper to hire the aide as a special
assistant. But that’s a lot of unproven “if”s — and a very thin and
nasty set of justifications for intruding into a politician’s personal

William Hague is one of the more impressive people in British public
life. So far as anybody can show, he has betrayed no public trust. He
and his wife lead a quiet, contented life together. Why isn’t that the
end of the story? If — like Bill Clinton — a politician careens from
reckless adventure to reckless adventure; if — like John Edwards — he
displays sociopathic egomania and cruel indifference to others; if —
like Larry Craig — he breaks the law; if — like U.S. Senator David
Vitter — he’s caught in brazen hypocrisy; if — like former New Jersey
Governor Jim McGreevey — he uses political power to reward sex partners;
then fire away. Otherwise: the personal concerns of politicians are …

Like every other line of work, politics attracts flawed people. It’s
often said that politicians are more flawed than other people, but I
wonder whether that’s just a function of the fact that we have more
information about them. And really: Is the person quivering behind the
door for fear of the journalistic stakeout really so much more perverse
than the person doing the staking?

David Frum is a columnist for the National Post, where this column originally appeared on September 4 (reprinted with permission.) He will be speaking at a CJF/Canadian Club of Toronto event on September 27 in Toronto on the state of political journalism.