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It is the public scandal that offends. To sin in secret is no sin at all. ~ Moliere
January 15, 2007 10:48 PM   Subscribe

Why Are British Sex Scandals So Much Better Than America's? A recent (Feb. 2007 issue) Vanity Fair article by James Wolcott examines the Profumo Affair , the Major-Currie revelations and the recent shenanigans at the U.K.'s The Spectator magazine, as compared to Mark Foley, Clinton-Lewinsky and much more.
posted by amyms (35 comments total)

 
I think one of the oddest (and saddest) UK ones in recent years was the case of Stephen Milligan during the Major years. What's interesting is that straight sex scandals are often recoverable from, at least in the UK (Boris Johnson, John Prescott) - but revelations of gay sex tend to end up in resignation (Ron Davies, Simon Hughes). Depressing, really.
posted by greycap at 11:19 PM on January 15, 2007


Well, they get to use the word "pederasty" when appropriate and we have to use fumbling phrases like "inappropriate contact", so they've got that going for them.

Counterpoint: Kennedy-Monroe.
posted by boo_radley at 11:21 PM on January 15, 2007 [1 favorite]


Seriously, America has had McGreevey and Gary Condit, plus Kennedy-Monroe. Wolcott's just not paying attention.
posted by JekPorkins at 11:45 PM on January 15, 2007


If it is true, could the explanation be that the Puritans left England for the US?
posted by Cranberry at 12:20 AM on January 16, 2007


Does the Keeley Hazell sex tape (nsfw) count as a British sex scandal? Because I find it much, much better than America's.
posted by jonson at 12:20 AM on January 16, 2007


It used to be the case that the Tories did the sex scandals and Labour did the money ones (perhaps because you are most likely to be led astray by the thing you could never get enough of before you were elected). But Blunkett and Prescott have undermined that principle a bit - perhaps Labour politicians are becoming rich but unattractive the way the Tories have always been.
posted by Phanx at 1:42 AM on January 16, 2007


You forgot the Lib Dems. The peculiarly named Lembit Opik recently shacked up with one of bottom of the food chain pop stars The Cheeky Girls. And then of course there's Mark Oaten. It wasn't so much that his scandal way gay, more that it involved having rent boys defecate on him. He blamed it on going bald.
posted by rhymer at 3:14 AM on January 16, 2007


sorry - should read "was" not "way"
posted by rhymer at 3:14 AM on January 16, 2007


"Why Are British Sex Scandals So Much Better Than America's?"

Better? Whichever side of the Atlantic you are on it is just ugly fuckers fucking.
posted by Shave at 3:47 AM on January 16, 2007


Accept Chirstine Keeler - she was hot, hot, hot.
posted by Shave at 3:48 AM on January 16, 2007


Darn, Christine Keeler, even.
posted by Shave at 3:49 AM on January 16, 2007


American tabloids don't use the word "romp" nearly enough.
posted by jamesonandwater at 6:27 AM on January 16, 2007


It's because the Brits have a sense of humor about it-- and we are obsessed with "what will the kids think?"
posted by Maias at 6:34 AM on January 16, 2007


I think part of it is that normal, straight adultery just isn't really even a 'scandal' over here.
posted by delmoi at 7:00 AM on January 16, 2007


Examples of normal, straight adultery among leading politicians which did not lead to a scandal, please.
posted by Phanx at 7:40 AM on January 16, 2007


amyms: "Why Are British Sex Scandals So Much Better Than America's?"

Because British 'newspapers' are more, ah, 'investigative.' [scroll down to letter]
posted by koeselitz at 7:54 AM on January 16, 2007


I read the article, but I don't follow: America has some really boring scandals. Britain has some really boring scandals. What is it about the American scandals that the author is saying are inferior to the British ones?
posted by Bugbread at 8:06 AM on January 16, 2007


Kennedy-Monroe

That was not in any sense a "scandal," since it was not public information at the time.

bugbread: You may find all these things boring, but clearly most people don't, and it's generally accepted among scandal aficionados that Britannia rules in this regard. I think it's the spicier tabloid culture, myself. Plus what jamesonandwater said.
posted by languagehat at 9:02 AM on January 16, 2007


It's the cut-throat press competition that pushes editors to press even when it's just a maybe, and to spin things up so that every juicy bit of the romp is printed that makes the difference. We got 12 national papers for an area the size of Oregon, or something like that.
posted by bonaldi at 9:15 AM on January 16, 2007


American tabloids don't use the word "romp" nearly enough.

They also use the words "saucy" and "tart" too sparingly... I love reading British gossip blogs so much more than their American equivalents, for the language alone.
posted by amyms at 9:22 AM on January 16, 2007


Evidently the entire empire had an affair with France in the 50's, so obviously the British set their sights higher for this sort of thing.
posted by TedW at 10:42 AM on January 16, 2007


Opik and Oaten have got a good way to go before they reach the weirdness of the Jeremy Thorpe scandal. That's when Liberal Democrats could do a scandal properly.
posted by seanyboy at 10:50 AM on January 16, 2007


It's because the Brits have a sense of humor about it-- and we are obsessed with "what will the kids think?"
posted by Maias


Hmm, this calls to mind an excruciating tv moment... it wasn't a politician or anything at the level you're all talking about, but a well known tv actor and presenter, Angus Deayton. He'd been with a call girl who as it happens spilt the whole story to the papers, who were very happy to go on and on for days about it. Right after that he was bound to go on tv to present his comedy show as usual, which he did, very bravely. Or suicidally. (That was the last time he did the show, after that he got the boot, because of the scandal). The regular guests had a blast mocking him mercilessly about it. He took it all in stride but it did go a little overboard. It started with veiled innuendos and within a few minutes they were quoting the girl's words from the paper and asking him questions about his sexual performance...

I doubt something like that would have happened on the US equivalent of prime time BBC, but I'm not sure it was all about something as harmless as having a sense of humour about it. There was a definite cruelty to it, and a certain moralism too, not so much the 'think of the children' kind, but the kind the tabloids indulge in, it's more about the sheer fun of humiliating celebs. Possibly a little envy as well.
posted by pleeker at 4:00 PM on January 16, 2007


pleeker: "I doubt something like that would have happened on the US equivalent of prime time BBC, but I'm not sure it was all about something as harmless as having a sense of humour about it. There was a definite cruelty to it, and a certain moralism too, not so much the 'think of the children' kind, but the kind the tabloids indulge in, it's more about the sheer fun of humiliating celebs. Possibly a little envy as well."

Gah, that sounds awful. See, USians who think that tabloids are generally equal, and that it's probably about the same over there since we're all moralist here, usually haven't seen the lengths to which British tabloid culture will stoop. In short : they're fucking vicious, just fucking vicious, in a way that Americans can't even comprehend.

Sometimes I wonder if this is because there's some legal loophole that allows this sort of thing. Is blackmail legal in the UK? Is it legal to invade privacy routinely over there?
posted by koeselitz at 4:18 PM on January 16, 2007


pleeker: "...he was bound to go on tv to present his comedy show as usual, which he did, very bravely. Or suicidally."

The video is on YouTube. They're brutal.
posted by koeselitz at 4:26 PM on January 16, 2007


They are brutal, but that's more because the three permanent people on the show seem to genuinely despise each other — or at least used to, relations between Paul and Ian have thawed a little in recent years. But you only have to watch a mid-90s episode to see how much they hated one another, especially the class warfare between Paul and Ian.
posted by matthewr at 5:06 PM on January 16, 2007


Sometimes I wonder if this is because there's some legal loophole that allows this sort of thing. Is blackmail legal in the UK? Is it legal to invade privacy routinely over there?

If anything, the laws are much tighter over here, particularly on libel, where the burden of proof is on the defendant, not the pursuer as in the US.

usually haven't seen the lengths to which British tabloid culture will stoop. In short : they're fucking vicious, just fucking vicious, in a way that Americans can't even comprehend.

This is true. I sat in on an American journalism ethics class once, where the professor described approaches to a family that has suffered tragedy. After the class had offered their views, mostly stuff like "don't cross the property line", "if they don't want to speak, don't force them", I chuckled to myself as she related in horror the time she saw a British press pack trampling a garden, peeking in the kitchen window and taking a ladder to a house to get to the folks inside.

There's also a difference in attitude to success, I suspect. Whereas it often seems that Americans are genuinely pleased for those who do well, and cherish their celebrities, here it's more common to take delight in the comeuppance and the downfall. With politicians, there's absolutely none of the deference office-bearers like the President of the US get. (Remember Bush's horror at a tame tickling from an Irish reporter? Or how George Galloway treated the Senate?)

A combination of this competitive no-holds-barred press, and this double-edged approach to success gives us these great scandals. Hurrah for muck-racking oiks and smudgy hacks.
posted by bonaldi at 7:07 PM on January 16, 2007


When I moved from NYC to London in December 1970, it astonished me that there was nudity on TV. The British seemed to be more aloof than Americans about sex and yet there seemed to be an element of mean gossip in London social circles I wasn't used to at all in NYC.

Maybe it's in the difference of how Americans and British talk about or deal with relationship mistakes? I find that Americans are more willing to talk about their emotional states when there is a mess and that, to some degree or another, takes the superficial fun out of the scandal tittilation aspect.

I knew someone, X, now dead, who I was told, was a former lover of Christine Keeler's and involved in the Profumo scandal. So, over the years I've been curious to read about that particular scandal, or about X, when snippets of info surfaced. Recently, I came across an autobiography of someone who had dealings with X, an ugly story about the British oil interests in Nigeria.

Another person, who was involved in the Profumo scandal, but who is almost never mentioned, is Thomas Corbally. He was an American, "who in January 1963 tipped off the then American ambassador in London about the Profumo affair - that unmatched scandal of spies, call-girls and politicians that hastened the resignation of Harold Macmillan later that year."

It was an interesting piece of hypocrisy that Corbally, "according to J Edgar Hoover advised his agents, he "ran sex orgies" at his flat" and had that snake lawyer, Roy Cohn, cover up his involvement with Ward, who had basically been Christine Keeler's pimp.

There was the recent Mark Foley mess with the Congressional pages.

I think there are plenty of American political-sexual scandals yet to come to the surface and when they do will be both as mildly entertaining as the Major-Currie one or as dark and twisted as the Profumo mess. But how they are dealt with in the press and by the American public will, imo, always be different from the British press and public take on scandal, which has a more catty edge to it.
posted by nickyskye at 8:41 PM on January 16, 2007


*titillation
posted by nickyskye at 9:51 PM on January 16, 2007


ah koeselitz, thanks for the video link. I must make a correction, by 'he took it all in stride' I really meant 'he was great'. Wasn't he? Yes he was. No debate.

bonaldi: I agree there are definitely a lot of benefits to the 'take delight in the comeuppance and the downfall' from the press especially in the form of lack of deference towards politicians, no doubt there, the grilling is warranted and necessary and a Good Thing.

But when it's not about politicians, and it's just tabloid crap about harmless stupid 'scandals' like the above, it does bother me, not so much about the poor celebs, but because it often comes with that shitty moralistic/envious attitude on people's private lives. It bothers me how it can encourage similar attitudes towards non-celebs, ordinary people, who don't have the resources to come out of it looking all the better for taking it on the chin in style. Know what I mean? I don't deny it can still be fun in a vicious way, but there's a thin line where it crosses over into something moronic and a little reactionary.
posted by pleeker at 2:22 AM on January 17, 2007


languagehat : "it's generally accepted among scandal aficionados that Britannia rules in this regard."

Well, my phrasing was rather flippant (my question one that appeared to be rhetorically saying "they're both boring"), but what I really meant was "to me, they both seem boring. However, other people find the British ones to be more interesting. What is it about them that I am missing?"

Which is why bad phrasing is bad. Sorry about that.

koeselitz : "In short : they're fucking vicious, just fucking vicious, in a way that Americans can't even comprehend."

I suspect that's the answer: it's not that the core events in the scandal that make British scandals more interesting, but the approach of the media to those events.
posted by Bugbread at 3:34 AM on January 17, 2007


bugbread, that was so obvious, I think you can assume it was implied :)

A scandal *is* made by the press after all, until no one hears about it it's not a scandal. And usually it's about boring stuff that happens so often, ordinary stuff that so many non-famous people do on a daily basis, it's not even half interesting in itself. So of course the issue is the media approach.
posted by pleeker at 4:11 AM on January 17, 2007


Time for a press release from Sir Norman Fry:

"Two gentlemen invited me into their cubicle to discuss their policies. Unfortunately, I slipped and fell between them, ending up in a position the arresting officer described as a 'spit roast'.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 4:29 AM on January 17, 2007


pleeker : "A scandal *is* made by the press after all, until no one hears about it it's not a scandal. And usually it's about boring stuff that happens so often, ordinary stuff that so many non-famous people do on a daily basis, it's not even half interesting in itself. So of course the issue is the media approach."

It wasn't so obvious to me. I thought that, perhaps, the scandals themselves were less boring. Ministers wanking during the PMs speeches, midget orgies, whathaveyou. So with that preconception, I read the article, and was surprised that I couldn't find what the big deal was.

So, yes, on reflection, if you already know or suspect that scandals consist of the same stuff in the UK as the US, it's obvious that the media approach is the issue. However, if you mistakenly believe (like I did) that the scandals consist of different, more scandalous stuff, then it's not so obvious that the difference is the media approach.

So, mea culpa, but keep in mind it's not necessarily that I'm incredibly dense, but that I was incredibly mistaken.
posted by Bugbread at 8:18 AM on January 17, 2007


Just watched the raking-Deayton-over-the-coals video. Dang, it's wickedly funny, in a savoring the cringes, public stomping kind of way.
posted by nickyskye at 9:14 AM on January 17, 2007


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