Belfast Telegraph

The Street of Shame

Fleet Street disgraced itself with its coverage of the Hague controversy. But the Foreign Secretary doesn't come out of it too well either.

By Michael White

Oh dear, what a shaming day for Fleet Street and the wider media world of telly which takes its cue from tabloidland and squalid tabloid values.

I cringed when I realised that William Hague had been forced to issue a humiliating personal statement about his wife's fertility to prove he was not carrying on with a male member of his staff.

How did this come about? Chiefly because the right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes (Paul Staines) got it into his head that the Foreign Secretary's appointment of 25-year-old Chris Myers as a special adviser must have more to it than meets the smutty eye. Some people are just like that.

What gave the story 'legs' - as we say in the trade - was an absurdly undignified photo of Hague walking along London's Embankment in casual gear.

Hague was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, plus a version of that baseball cap that undermined his leadership of the Tory party. Oh yes, and wrap-around shades.

It was a ridiculous photo and Hague looked a prat: people his age - 49 - should not dress as if they are 25, especially if they are Foreign Secretary.

Except that Hague wasn't. The photo was a year old - not that the papers that reprinted it pointed that out.

Anyway, Guido kept banging away and some of the papers 'started digging', as we also say in the trade.

Why had Hague been allowed to appoint an inexperienced third special adviser when Dave had capped their number at two-per-department? Better still, was it true that Hague and Myers had shared a room occasionally during the election campaign?

It was all belatedly set out in yesterday's Guardian. But the gossip had been doing the Westminster rounds for most of August and the Foreign Office issued a less-than-watertight statement that allowed several papers to run denial stories.

Hague has been a target for lurid gossip for decades, some of the anecdotes damning and specific, but also improbable. Do you see Ffion Hague as the sort of woman who would agree to be a beard for a sort-of-gay husband's ambition?

I don't, but perhaps it's me who's naive. A Yorkshire grandmother, 90-ish, respectable and expensively Tory, told a friend of mine on the phone last night: "I'm sick of these men hiding behind bushes. Why don't they just come out?"

Because they don't have to if they don't want to, grandma. David Laws wanted to stay in the closet so as not to upset his Catholic mum.

Fair enough, I say, though he laid himself open to the public funds charge, the ostensible reason for going after Hague too.

So should I have been round the Foreign Office's dustbins sniffing the sheets? Well, that depends on what you think is a legitimate matter of public interest.

By and large, I don't think people's sex lives are unless they are public hypocrites, funding their lifestyles improperly from the public purse, or want to put details into the public domain - as many people seem to want to do.

But Hague? If he was indeed having an affair with Chris Myers and put him/her on the public payroll, that would be a legitimate target for investigation.

Is that likely? Ask yourself. Hague may have spotty judgment - on Europe, or in hiring Myers at all - but not even he would do something so rash and improper as hire a lover at the taxpayer's expense.

He hired Myers. It must mean it was all innocent. Yes? No?

I know what you're thinking. The latest statement confirms that Hague and Myers occasionally shared a twin room on the campaign trail.

It sounds like admirable austerity to me.

Politicians get attacked for extravagance. Now they get hammered for saving money. You just can't win.

All of which has ended up with Hague having to explain how he and Ffion have been trying unsuccessfully to have children for years.

We can all see how sad that is for them, as for couples in their situation. But to reveal this to prove you are straight... oh dear again. How much sadder and more undignified. Not that it proves anything.

As I type, John Humphrys is milking the tale with as much thinly-veiled enthusiasm as Radio 4's Today programme can muster.

It's the high-minded broadsheet version of tabloid humbug and wouldn't have happened like this even a few years ago, not rehashing the gossip on the BBC or in the broadsheets. Even the FT carried Hague's denial on page one.

On air, Mirror editor-turned-Guardian media pundit Roy Greenslade was huffing and puffing about gossip seeping from the blogosphere into the news pages and how difficult it becomes. Hmm.

The Daily Mail yesterday turned the tale with characteristic nimbleness from gay sex into one of domestic tragedy: "Our baby agony, by the Hagues." For the broadsheets and the Beeb it's now about Hague's "judgment".

But what about our collective judgment? What about Guido's? When he wrote "one witness told Guido that the room-sharing couple's body language at breakfast was eye opening" what was he thinking?

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