Buried among the news-in-briefs at the foot of page 6 of yesterday's Daily Telegraph, the vigilant reader might have spotted a small item headed: 'William Hague denies relationship'. The suggestion that Britain's foreign secretary was having an 'inappropriate' relationship with a male member of his staff was deemed to be worth 17 lines.
The story as written and presented had the whiff of an official communique of yesteryear. We might almost have been back in that deferential era when Mr Attlee would step off a plane from some important foreign meeting and be greeted by a posh-sounding chap from the BBC.
'Is there anything you would like to say, sir?' Attlee would be asked.
'No,' Attlee would reply.
'Thank you very much for your time, sir.'
What exactly the Telegraph was up to, secreting a stick of dynamite in such a fashion, only the Telegraph can say. It may have been a last-ditch attempt by Mr Hague to kill the story with the help of a friendly(ish) newspaper, in which case it was doomed to fail, or it may have been part of some darker plot to lure the foreign secretary into further disclosures, in which case it succeeded only too well. By the end of the day, the story was all over the shop. How inconvenient for Tony Blair, who was trying to launch a book.
'The most extraordinary political statement I have ever read', the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, was declaiming as I switched on the 6pm television news. Since he was clutching a copy of Mr Blair's substantial volume, it was not immediately obvious which political statement Mr Robinson had in mind – the former prime minister's extended statement of self-justification or the present foreign secretary's somewhat briefer statement of denial and clarification. The latter, it turned out.
The most extraordinary political statement? With the aid of a little alcohol, of the kind that Mr Blair seems to have sought for consolation after another bruising day in the company of Gordon Brown, I might be able to think of several political statements, well within the lifetime of Nick Robinson and myself, more extraordinary than Mr Hague's. Some of Mr Blair's on the Iraq war spring to mind without the benefit of strong drink.
The British do nothing better than hypocrisy, a dish for all seasons, usually served with a thick, spicy sauce.
Nick Robinson's exaggerated view of the statement perfectly symbolised the schizophrenia of the media's reporting, or non-reporting, of the various insinuations and rumours swirling around William Hague. Last Saturday, for example, the same Daily Telegraph led its front page with a string of innuendo about an 'un-named cabinet minister' who was said to be considering legal action to prevent the publication of wholly unfounded claims about his private life. It was thought, nevertheless, that the minister might be named in the Sunday newspapers. As it happened, the Sundays avoided the story, perhaps on legal advice, perhaps because editors were genuinely uncertain if the story had, so to speak, legs.
All this was no more and no less than an elaborate pantomime. The story had been the talk of the internet steamie for some time, regularly mentioned on high-profile political blogs. Anyone reading the Telegraph's coy version only had to type a few words into a search engine and there, hey presto, was the un-named cabinet minister revealed in all his baseball-capped glory. This is the nature of modern communication whether we like it or not, but it has left the old media gasping for breath.
It has always been a favourite ploy of 'serious' newspapers to rehash salacious material from the tabloids in the guise of media commentary on the dreadful excesses of the popular press. This technique has now been universally adapted and given a contemporary twist in relation to internet-inspired scandal – which the newspapers affect to disdain while nudging their readers to check the web for stories they dare not publish themselves. Is this creditable journalism? Well, not very.
The British do nothing better than hypocrisy, a dish for all seasons, usually served with a thick, spicy sauce. The Hague affair (using that word in a non-sexual sense) has been hyprocrisy through and through. By last night, the political editing class was assuring us that, given the emphatic nature of Mr Hague's denial and the abrupt departure of his special adviser, the story was dead: it had nowhere to go. Sure enough, one searched with difficulty for any mention of it on the Ceefax text service this morning and there was no mention of it in the BBC's review of the morning papers. The ghost of the posh-sounding gent who once met Attlee off a plane still stalks the corporation on days like this. How quickly the most extraordinary political statement of Nick Robinson's life can be buried by his own employer.
Mr Hague has given a categorical assurance that he is not gay, that he loves his wife, and that there was nothing in the least inappropriate about the relationship. That is probably the end of the matter; or that particular matter. In any case, Mr Hague's private life should be just that – his own. But there is another related matter which will not go away; at least, not immediately. It concerns the public interest element of the story – and, make no mistake, there is such an element. It is surprising how little it has been mentioned.
Until recently – as recently as the 2010 general election campaign – the young man at the centre of the unfounded rumours was employed as Mr Hague's driver. After the election, he was unexpectedly promoted to an influential post in the Foreign Office. Why? The hundreds of thousands of public service workers who are about to lose their jobs are entitled to wonder whether this appointment was entirely wise; or even entirely necessary. Until Mr Hague produces a more satisfactory basis for his recruitment of the young man, the story will continue to haunt him – and his government.
This article was reproduced with the kind permission of Kenneth Roy.
Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish review.