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Tuesday 8 February 2011

Well, He Would Say That, Wouldn’t He?

A comment that may dispirit many, but may also be proved wrong in time, came from PR guru Max Clifford during yesterday evening’s C4 Dispatches, Tabloids’ Dirty Secrets (available on 4OD HERE). Clifford believed that the full extent of Phonehackgate may never be known, that too many powerful interests would prevent a full investigation.

I don’t go with that: given that the Guardian, mainly via the efforts of Nick Davies and his editor Alan Rusbridger, has been almost alone in pursuing the affair, it would not have even got this far if Clifford’s assertion were true. The parallel that came to mind was with another case where there was a belief that the well connected and powerful could do as they please, and get away with it, that unfolded almost half a century ago.

In Summer 1961, at a party held on the Cliveden estate of Lord Astor, Minister for War John Profumo met, and subsequently had a brief affair with, a call-girl by the name of Christine Keeler, who had also been seeing a Soviet diplomat. The rumours circulated throughout the following year, but the Fourth Estate was less inclined in those days to disturb the privacy of those at the top of the tree.

Eventually, the story made the papers, and Profumo made a statement to the Commons, denying impropriety over his relationship with Keeler. Three months later he was back, confessing that he had misled the House, and he resigned as an MP. But that was only the start of it.

The “Profumo Affair” revealed the often murky world of the well connected and powerful: seedy landlord Peter Rachman, osteopath Stephen Ward (who introduced Profumo to Keeler), and Keeler’s friend Mandy Rice-Davies were players in the affair, as was Lord Astor. The Macmillan Government was rocked by the revelation – and many were dismayed at Profumo’s lack of candour. It is widely believed that the affair cost the Tories the 1964 General Election.

Other factors were at play here: this was one of the stories on which the then new satirical magazine Private Eye cut its teeth, there was a less reverential attitude towards authority figures, and an increasingly probing tone from broadcast media. That could happen again: today we have all manner of communications available without having to make do with the mainstream of the Fourth Estate.

And that is why I believe that Max Clifford is wrong: once the door is prised open, and the world outside can see the all too cosy convocation of politicians, the Murdoch press, and the Metropolitan Police, it will become so much easier for the whole rotten edifice to come crashing down.

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