By Kenneth Roy
Sunday night on Sky, and there's breaking news. But it's only Nick Clegg 'clarifying' some earlier statement about the latest Lib Dem scandal, the allegedly 'inappropriate behaviour' of one Lord Rennard, Chris to his friends, of whom he appears to have few these days. Within minutes the revised statement is being parsed and analysed and found wanting. Half an hour later it is mince, and even being tested for traces of horsemeat. That's 24-hour news for you.
Vince Cable, the former Glasgow Labour councillor, had earlier promised Sky viewers that the party would 'get to the bottom of this'. Although he is a keen ballroom dancer, Vince didn't seem to be in the mood for a double entendre, so the reference to the posterior, the ultimate destination of the forthcoming inquiry, may have been dead serious.
Lembit Opik, improbably cast as the party's elder statesman and media sage, then used a live interview to plunge a none too elegant dagger into his leader's back. It would be hard for a chap like Lembit to be remembered only for a relationship with the TV weather forecaster Siân Lloyd, queen of the brollies. Fortunately he acquired a bit of much-needed gravitas by having a subsequent relationship with one of the Cheeky Girls. Lembit reminded us that he had also been vice-president of the party, adding meaningfully that he had demitted this important office before the allegations of 'inappropriate behaviour' (which his lordship strenuously denies) came to light.
When they did come to light, Lord Rennard was visited by none other than Danny Alexander, 'chief of staff' at the time, who had abandoned a promising career as press officer of the Cairngorms National Park Authority to pursue an alternative calling with the Liberal Democrats. He now shares the responsibility for the persecution of Britain's disabled people; the current joke is that Mr Alexander is the sort of minister who would have declared the skeleton of Richard the Third fit for work. Evidently he asked Lord Rennard if he had been behaving inappropriately, and Lord Rennard said he hadn't. Mr Alexander appears to have accepted this reply and done nothing more about it. Unlike the skeleton of Richard the Third, Lord Rennard was allowed to retire on health grounds.
In all the excitement of Sunday evening, there was no mention of another Lib Dem luminary, Chris Huhne, who was lording it as secretary of state for the environment before his inappropriate behaviour – criminal and belatedly admitted in his case – was exposed by the Sunday Times. By this time next week Mr Huhne will be surveying the environment of Pentonville Prison and wondering why he did nothing about the condition of the lavatories when he had the chance. With any luck he will be out by Christmas and free to take up the great cause of penal reform.
After its extensive coverage of the Lord Rennard crisis, Sky News turned to another story of allegedly 'inappropriate behaviour', this one concerning Cardinal Keith O'Brien, Britain's most senior Roman Catholic cleric. The Observer's allegations, dating back 30 years and bearing no suggestion of criminality, were disbelieved by the parishioners interviewed for Sky News on the doorstep of St Mary's Cathedral on Sunday morning; one said confidently that their man was not only innocent but a fine leader of the Christian community in Scotland.
But the cardinal's absence from mass did not bode well; nor did the statement – on this day of statements – from the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland that its leader was 'contesting' the allegations and 'taking legal advice', which to aficionados of official denials fell short of the expected standards of righteous indignation. Cardinal O'Brien was gone by Monday morning, apologising for failures in his ministry, not specifically denying the allegations, and emphasising that he was anxious to avoid becoming a distraction. I have news for ex-Cardinal O'Brien: he will remain a distraction for some time. Meanwhile he would be well advised to avoid the more rabid tabloids.
After half an hour on Sky News of alleged inappropriate behaviour, it was time for sport. It usually is. But it was difficult to concentrate on Swansea City's glorious victory in the cup, and the diverting on-field spat between two of its players, for pondering the meaning of the phrase itself. Inappropriate behaviour – it seems to cover more or less every lapse, from trivial breaches of school discipline and people picking their noses in public to the conduct of footballers and harassment in the workplace.
But observe how its essential purpose is often to obscure rather than illuminate. What – to put none too fine a point on it – were Lord Rennard and Cardinal O'Brien alleged to have been up to, exactly? Sky News wasn't saying. The imagination was left to run riot, as mine did. But here is a guess. The allegations involved not simply the behaviour itself, of which we know little, but the abuse of power. There is also, in both cases, a possible whiff of hypocrisy. Lembit Opik said on Sky News that he joined the Liberal Democrats because of their record of transparency. That's gone. Similarly, Cardinal O'Brien, who finds himself accused of inappropriate behaviour with fellow priests, has been an outspoken opponent of liberalising the laws on homosexuality.
That old monster John Junor had a golden rule about revealing the messy private lives of public figures. As editor of the Sunday Express, he had a policy of only exposing sexual hypocrisy. Many years ago – so long ago that the phrase inappropriate behaviour had not yet entered the language – he gave me an illustration of what he meant: 'If you get a politician who loves seeing his picture in the paper kissing babies at garden parties, I don't see why he should recoil if the baby turns out to be 19 and in a night club'. That puts it rather well.
Happily for all concerned, however, the exposure of hypocrisy is about to become more difficult, certainly in Scotland, where an aged judge is deciding how to 'underpin' Mr Salmond's new system of press regulation. Soon there will be no need to deny inappropriate behaviour as a result of inconvenient stories in the Sunday Times and the Observer. It simply won't be alleged publicly in the first place. That will suit our masters, political and clerical, very well indeed, no doubt.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review