The Media’s Selective Policing of‘Sleaze’
Mic Wright explores the erratic approach of certain outlets to stories of corruption and wrongdoing
The word “sleaze” – used as a softening synonym for “corruption” and “grift” in descriptions of political scandals – is a peculiarly British term. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation comes from The Listener – the BBC magazine that ran from 1929 to 1991 – which observed in 1967 that “for all its brazen sleaze, Soho is a pretty fair working model of what a city neighbourhood should be”.
It wasn’t until 1986 that the term appeared in Hansard, in a speech by Labour backbencher Austin Mitchell, during the first reading of the Financial Services Bill. He said: “The City seems to have shown the ethics of Thatcherism, the spirit of grab and greed and ‘do it quickly because the country is on a downhill slope’ coming home to roost almost like the last days of a decaying empire… Money is being made from the Government’s privatisation programme and, on top of that, there is the frenzy of bids, takeovers and mergers pouring the credit and money available not into investment to provide for the country’s future or into jobs, but into a frenzy of speculation. It is no wonder that there is an aura of sleaze hanging over our financial institutions. That is undesirable.”
Mitchell was also responsible for the second use of “sleaze” in Hansard, this time directly related to political activities. Proposing a doomed bill to prevent companies contracted by the Government from donating to political parties and individual politicians, he said: “Ideally, political parties – this is a widely-held view – should be financed by the state, but until that happy day comes the very least that we can do is establish these two basic principles to dissipate the air of sleaze and scandal and the possibility of undue and unreasonable influence and of wrong deals which is all too prevalent today.”
His words were uttered in the Commons more than 35 years ago, but are still relevant today. Despite Mitchell’s strong conviction that Labour would clean things up once it returned to government, the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments simply brought a new set of scandals and a new series of ‘reforms’.
But “sleaze” as a tabloid newspaper term only took hold from the dawn of the Major era in 1990. John Major had only been the resident of 10 Downing Street for three days when his administration’s first scandal broke: Defence Procurement Minister Alan Clark was caught on tape advising arms industry executives on how to word export applications to Iraq to avoid sanctions, sparking the memorable headline ‘Dishonourable Member’ (though the less said about Clark’s own dishonourable member, the better).
After Major unexpectedly won the 1992 General Election, the Sun splashed with its notorious line ‘It Woz The Sun Wot Won It’. The newspaper’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, described it as “tasteless and wrong” in his evidence to the Leveson Inquiry and claimed that he had “bollocked” the editor Kelvin Mackenzie for running it. Whatever the truth (or otherwise) of the Sun’s influence, Major was not nearly as willing to cosy up to Murdoch as his predecessor Margaret Thatcher.
Documents released by the National Archives in 2018 revealed just how the relationship between the Murdoch press and the Conservative Government changed once Major became Prime Minister. Thatcher met ‘Uncle Rupert’ regularly during her time in office but there were just three formal meetings between Major and Murdoch during his seven years in 10 Downing Street.
A sharp memo written by Major’s press secretary, the future Cabinet Secretary Gus O’Donnell, in 1993 gives a good indication why: “I was surprised to learn, given the worldwide scale of his business that [Murdoch] phones Kelvin MacKenzie most days to keep up to date on the British scene. God alone knows what Kelvin tells him, as he is often very poorly informed. This explains why Murdoch frequently obtains very biased views of what is happening here.”
When Major and his senior ministers were invited to a News International social event in September 1993, the then Prime Minister decided not to attend and instructed his Cabinet to follow suit – an attempt to show his anger at critical coverage by the Murdoch titles following the 1992 election.
His Home Secretary, Michael Howard, sent him a handwritten letter warning: “I hope I need hardly say… I fully share your dismay at the behaviour [of newspapers] since the election. But we shall need them at the next election. The case for some harmless gesture such as attending a dinner seems to me quite strong.”
Major did not conceal his contempt and later claimed in his Leveson Inquiry evidence that he refused a demand from Murdoch during a private dinner in 1997 to change his pro-European stance or face losing the press baron’s support for the forthcoming general election.
The Sleaze Swamp
“Sleaze” did not suddenly appear in the wake of Major’s ‘back to basics’ speech at the Conservative Party Conference in 1993. Just as the newspapers have not suddenly become aware of the ‘shocking’ second jobs of parliamentarians like Geoffrey Cox – The Times, for instance, reported on Cox’s lucrative new role at the city law firm Withers in October 2020, not high in the news pages but quietly in its legal column – the tabloids simply used Major’s words as an opportunity to pull the sleaze stories out of the locked filing cabinet.
Take for example the story of minister David Mellor’s affair with Antonia de Sancha, which broke in 1992. Garlanded with details that have stuck in the memory despite being entirely fictional (notably the claim that Mellor had “romped” in a Chelsea strip), the story came soon after Mellor, the minister with responsibility for the media, had told the tabloids they were “drinking in the last chance saloon” with their attitude to privacy.
Had he been more friendly it is likely that the affair would never have been revealed – many haven’t been.
In 1994, the News of the World ‘exposed’ a second Mellor affair, this time with Lady Penelope Cobham – who has been his partner ever since – even though he was no longer a minister and Major’s ‘back to basics’ call had actually been nothing to do with marital fidelity.
Piers Morgan, who was the News of the World’s editor at the time, wrote in his collected diaries The Insider: “It had been a bit tricky standing the story up because the devious old dog has a flat in the same block as the Defence Secretary, Tom King, so security was tight. We cracked it by getting a female reporter pretending she was pregnant until someone let her in.”
Nothing says moral probity like getting a woman to pretend to be pregnant in order to sneak into someone’s home and expose their private affair.
The media of 2021 is no less inclined to sleaze of its own than its 1990s predecessors. Some sleaze becomes headline news while other corrupt behaviour is simply dismissed as the cost of doing business. It depends very much on your relationship with the newspaper proprietors and the media in general.
“Sleaze” in the hands of the British press is an irregular verb and how it applies to you depends very much on your past allegiances and future usefulness. If Boris Johnson gets in line, you can expect the Sun, The Times, and the Mail to let this scandal fade away. The Telegraph, Johnson’s once and future home as a columnist, has already started that process. The rules only really matter when the media decides they do.