“An English Affair,” a reexamination of the Profumo Affair by Richard Davenport-Hines that last month won the Paddy Power Political Book Award for best political history, is a strong entrant in the genre of history and sociology that challenges established narratives about everything from the Satanic ritual abuse panic to British sex scandals. It is disconcerting to realize that the details that have persisted from that 51-year-old sex scandal involving an affair between War Minister John Profumo and the much-younger Christine Keeler, from the intimations of kinky sex to the threat that Keeler was leaking confidential information, are false.
But “An English Affair,” subtitled “Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo,” is worth reading for its striking parallels to our present political moment. It is not simply that the Profumo Affair ushered in the periodic political sex scandals that mark our news cycle, combining incumbent sexual liberation with a new prudishness about adulterers who committed the sin of getting caught.
Davenport-Hines — who does a better job explaining the forces that shaped the response to the Profumo Affair than actually walking us through it — has written a sprightly portrait of why scandal news coverage is so effective, particularly when it is paired with an insurgent political mood. “An English Affair” is the perfect book to help us understand that while Fox News’s partnership with the Republican Party might be maddeningly effective, it also is not exactly an innovation.
At the time of Profumo’s brief liaison with Keeler, British newspapers were experiencing a downturn, driven in part by the 1955 debut of ITV. That network was meant to provide competition for the BBC, but it also hit newspaper circulation. “Editors had long known that sex stories sold their papers,” Davenport-Hines writes. “After 1955, faced with competition from ITV, they told their staff to produce sizzling stories with lots of pictures to vie with screen images.”
But papers also had political agendas: “An English Affair” zeroes in on Cecil King and Hugh Cudlipp of the Mirror Group as invested in a Labor victory. The Profumo Affair, which was to prove profoundly embarrassing to Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s Tory government, gave them an opportunity to push the sort of juicy scandal coverage that could knock back ITV, and to advance the Mirror Group’s political interests.
“Most popular newspapers raised as much dirt and noise as they could during the Profumo Affair – but by unthinking reflex,” Davenport-Hines explains. “The King-Cudlipp newspapers, by contrast, had premeditated, coherent tactics to accomplish their strategic aim of damaging the reputation and confidence of Macmillan’s government. Their newspapers were the ones that seized on the Keeler-Profumo affair not as a weapon for a general thumping of the Conservative Party, but as a poisoned stiletto which, if carefully inserted , would kill off a political class.”
Sound familiar? Much as scandal coverage in the conservative press in the present administration relies on a symbiotic relationship with congressional Republicans, particularly Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the Mirror Group papers got a lift in their coverage from the man Macmillan appointed to run an inquiry into the Profumo Affair.
Lord Denning had been a divorce judge and served as the head of the Lawyer’s Christian Fellowship. Davenport-Hines reports that he was anxious about mixed-race juries and in 1957 argued for the criminalization of vasectomies on the grounds that they enabled “the gratification of sexual intercourse without any of the responsibilities.” Later, in a preview of the morality policing of teachers that continues today, Denning upheld the teacher’s college expulsion of a woman who committed the great sin of letting her boyfriend into her bedroom.
Denning and the Mirror Group may not have had the same values, and their interest in seeing sexual scandal everywhere sprung from rather different motivations. But when Macmillan handed Denning the brief to investigate the Profumo Affair, he gave the Mirror Group a gift that would help end his tenure as prime minister.
Davenport-Hines’s description of the report Denning eventually produced makes for staggering reading. After Stephen Ward, the osteopath who introduced Profumo and Keeler, committed suicide during his trial, Denning “took the verdict of the trial as unchallengable, although it would probably have been overturned on appeal if Ward had lived.” Denning suppressed information that MI5 wanted minimized, interviewed dominatrixes, called Keeler a prostitute (which she was not) and poked his nose into unrelated divorces.
Discussing a photograph of Keeler in a bikini, Davenport-Hines notes Denning wrote that “most people seeing it would readily infer the avocation of Christine Keeler.” “Did he mean that all models who posed in bikinis were whores,” Davenport-Hines asks, “or that all women who allowed themselves to be photographed in swimwear were sluts?”
Denning and the Mirror Group’s version of the Profumo Affair stuck. “Tendentious references to the events of 1963 persist in books: journalists spread their casual inaccuracies,” Davenport-Hines writes in frustration. “In 2010, the Daily Telegraph described Keeler as ‘procured for Lord Astor’s “Cliveden Set ” by Stephen Ward, an osteopath with a sideline in high-class prostitution’. The truth, however, is that Keeler was never procured for Lord Astor or his guests, and Ward did not have an auxiliary income as a pimp.”
The symbiosis between Fox News and Republican congressional inquiries is mutually beneficial for many reasons. Incremental and ongoing inquiries feed Fox’s many shows, and the attention Fox gives the inquiries helps justify the ongoing investigations. Benghazi or the Internal Revenue Service investigation are protection against slow news days and risky election cycles. And as the example of the Profumo Affair makes clear, this is also how you make history.