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World Opinion Roundup by Jefferson Morley

Anatomy of a Political Sex Scandal

Love Woes of British Minister Spice Up a Dull Political Season

By Jefferson Morley
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 30, 2004; 9:00 AM

Ever since Election Day, the average American news reader has been submerged in a tepid bath of post-election commentary on American values, European allies and the like. By contrast, the normally staid pages of the British online media offer an oasis of prurient fun in the form of a juicy political sex scandal.

The headlines now dominating the British news sites tell a tale that is familiar but somehow fresh in its embarrassing details: A tough-talking Cabinet minister falls in love with an American socialite who is already respectably married. He is David Blunkett, the blind Home Secretary whose hard-line policies on terrorism and drugs have gained him a working class following in the British Labor party. She is Kimberly Quinn, publisher of the right-wing magazine, the Spectator, who first welcomed, but now scorns, his ardor.


Britain's embattled Home Secretary David Blunkett talks on a mobile phone in front of his London home today. (Kieran Doherty - Reuters)

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The "very human mess" of Blunkett’s ordeal has some educational value, even if you’re the sort who disdains sex scandals.

The hanky panky of these mismatched stiffs may strike Americans as less screwball than our home-grown political comedies: the president seduced by the pizza girl; the former education secretary who squandered a fortune at the gaming table; the televangelist who frolicked with a lady of the night. But viewed from a distance, the "scandal" of Blunkett’s unfortunate love life says something larger about 21st century Anglo-American political culture.

This sex scandal originated, as so many do, in the right-wing press. The News of the World, a world-class tabloid owned by conservative media baron Ruport Murdoch, broke the story that Blunkett was involved with Quinn last summer.

Eventually, the less sensationalistic news organizations were sucked in. The Scotsman, one of the better papers in the United Kingdom, provides a useful chronology of how their affair progressed (he became obsessed) and then disintegrated (she wanted to make her marriage work).

The latest twist: Quinn alleged in an email to the Sunday Telegraph that Blunkett used his office to get favorable treatment for her family and her nanny.

Now the punchy but politically trivial prose of the tabloids is temporarily dominating British political discourse.

"Married Kimberly, 43, stuck the knife into Mr Blunkett after their three-year affair ended amid a bitter dispute over whether he is the father of her two-year-old son William," reports the Sun, another Murdoch sheet.

Elite journalists, instead of leading political discussion, find themselves relegated to muttering while they sweep the gutter. As a starchy correspondent for the Independent, a proper London daily, wrote yesterday that "readers of newspapers that are more robust in treating private lives than this one have been treated to vast amounts of information about the ... affair ... It has all come from people who know one or both of the estranged former lovers, usually speaking without their authority."

Which is not to say it isn’t fun to read about. The Blunkett affair is a reminder that the political sex scandal, like rock and roll music, is an Anglo-Saxon art form that the Europeans have never mastered. Time and again, the elites of "Old Europe" have proven themselves utterly incapable of whipping themselves into a frenzy about their leaders’ love lives.

In the French press, for example, Mrs. Jacques Chirac is occasionally quoted commenting wryly on her 72-year old husband’s habitual (some say pathetic) infidelities. In America, such a revelation would go straight to page one. In Paris, Chirac’s rivals and the French press corps choose not to choreograph the details of the president’s private life into a melodrama of political morality. Some will see evidence that the French are cynical and lack values, others that Americans are arrogant and lack manners. Either way, you have the gist of the European-American political impasse -- and you don’t have to read Thomas Friedman to get it.

But the dumbing-down effect of the sex scandal is also obvious: British political debate is now focused on the single loaded question of whether the politician in question is a hypocrite?

One commentator in the Sun, wondered how Blunkett’s defenders would feel "if he’d been playing happy families with their wives and children." Another in the tabloid, Daily Express, asked, "How much longer will we have to bear being bossed around by a man who is prepared to put a marriage and two children through the public wringer?"

It's not that more charitable views are not heard. "The view that Blunkett is a ... marriage breaker who deserves exposure," is not shared by his peers in parliament, countered Andy McSmith in the Independent.

Nor is the serious business of politics entirely avoided. Another popular tabloid, the Mirror, sees still-unidentified "dark forces" in Prime Minister Tony Blair's Cabinet trying to end Blunkett's political career.

But the nature of a sex scandal casts the public interest mostly in terms of personal conflict. In its news coverage, the Sun portrays Blunkett as a loving father victimized by "emotional blackmail" of a calculating woman, while the editors of the Telegraph see him as "dangerously diverted by an emotional maelstrom."

The leftist editors of the Guardian, who would rather talk about Blunkett's anti-terrorism policies, find themselves forced to referee the less than gripping question of whether he expedited a visa request for Mrs. Quinn's nanny. (There's no reason not to believe his denial, they say.)

The net effect of this sex scandal, like so many others, is to crowd out more substantive debate, and to disparage any public servant capable of foolish love, that is to say, just about everybody who works for government. The furor over Blunkett "is unlikely to derail Blair's election campaign," said the Mirror, "but may add to a mood of public mistrust in government."

If so, Rupert Murdoch won't be unhappy.


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