I feel ancient. I remember when a Tory vice girl story was a thing of joy and wonder, a hose full of snigger juice soused across the news. “Aha!” you could chortle back in the days of section 28 and Back To Basics, “They love to govern our bedrooms, but they’re not so straight themselves!” And then you could giggle yourself into a mildly-satirical frenzy, and maybe climax with a joke about oranges. Innocent, undemanding days.
We don’t do that anymore. When photos come out of a young George Osborne with his arm around dominatrix Natalie Rowe and a suspicious heap of white powder on the table in front of him, everyone – even the lefty-types who’d usually be agitating for his downfall; especially the lefty-types who’d usually be agitating for his downfall – gets terribly urbane and says things like, “Aha! I don’t care what he puts up his nose, I just care about the mess he’s making of the economy!” They might even follow it up with a mildly satirical giggle.
That’s because one thing phone hacking has made us all very sure of is that public figures deserve private lives. As Greg Dyke said to FT editor John Lloyd in a Radio 4 documentary on journalism post-hackgate, “The individual is entitled to a degree of privacy. Most of the popular press has gone over the line on that, so they will have to be reined back.”
Even future chancellors, even if their private life involved hard drugs and sex workers – not fair game. There’s no section 28, Back To Basics bit the citrus long ago, the Tory PM is even agitating for same-sex marriage – these are different, more liberal times. It would be unseemly, gauche even, to have demanded the chancellor’s head with the consensus so much in favour of discretion.
But the story has a much more direct link to hackgate – one clear in Rowe’s interview with ABC, but largely ignored by UK coverage, which got a bit excited about the sex and drugs and then gave up when the scandal didn’t seem to stick. Rowe had sold her story to the Mirror, but News Of The World (under Andy Coulson’s editorship) unexpectedly scooped its rival, and ran a much more favourable line on Osborne. Rowe was later told that her phone had been hacked.
For anyone who had wondered why Downing Street had backed Coulson past the point of embarrassment and into the realms of blustering farce, this seemed to offer an answer. Coulson had apparently used the NOTW to spike a politically dangerous story for Osborne, earning the Tories’ loyalty – or perhaps making it a liability to part with him.
Lofty tabloid logic claims that their intrusions exerted scrutiny on the powerful; but here, if hacking was used, it was used only to aggregate power to the News Of The World and its editor. That should have been a massive scandal, but Osborne rode it out – because we were all too busy executing nonchalant shrugs at the hedonistic details to pick out the threads of corruption.