As British sex scandals go, last week's serial outing of three ministers in Tony Blair's cabinet pales before the great sleaze fests of recent Anglo history. It lacks the fur-draped drama of the Christine Keeler/John Profumo affair, which nearly toppled the government in 1963, or the sinister scent of sodomy that infused the Kim Philby double-agent scare at the height of the Cold War. In fact, beyond a rumored rent boy or two, the current sex scandal doesn't have much sex at all. But, like the American public's reaction to the impeachment uproar, it does signal a fundamental shift in attitudes. In both cases, the only shock-horror was the public's revulsion toward the moralizing right. And the only real news was the revelation that the media's instinct for outrage had become obsolete.
Much has been made of the fact that The Sun, Britain's largest tabloid, apologized for its role in the outing of Agriculture Minister Nick Brown. The paper pointed to a flood of complaints from readers, echoing polls in which a broad majority of Britons said they didn't care about the sexuality of politicians. Rupert Murdoch, who owns The Sun (along with The News of the World and the upscale Sunday Times), was reportedly incensed by what his editors had wrought, but not necessarily for moral reasons. After all, the scandal could easily have spread to the Tories, whose shadow cabinet is reputed to contain an ample closet. What's more, one of the outed ministers was Blair strategist Peter Mandelson, who, as trade secretary, will have to approve Murdoch's bid to buy a Manchester soccer team.
The timing of the scandal couldn't be worse. Lady Di still haunts the British tabs, and the last thing Murdoch needs is another invasion-of-privacy spectacle. It didn't help that Brown's ailing mother had to find out about her son in the paper, which ran a photo of him touring a dairy farm in a regulation (but unfortunate) blue hairnet. That was pure perfidious Albion. But worst of all was the headline with which The Sun regaled its readers: TELL US THE TRUTH, TONY. ARE WE BEING RUN BY A GAY MAFIA?
Is anyone surprised? The British tabloids have long displayed a pernicious paranoia when it comes to poofs in power. In other cultures, queers are thought to constitute a threat to children and showering soldiers, but in England, they are suspected of belonging to a froufrou freemasonry that secretely runs the government. This vicious canard has less to with the reality of gay life than with a stereotype founded on the lives of certain kings. Take Eddie 2, the all but openly gay monarch who was killed in a singular manner, with a red-hot poker up his pookie; or Jim 1, whose fondness for a Scot made said laddie the first of his nation to sit in the House of Lords; or Richard the Lion Hearted, whose heart belonged to the young king of France.
In each case, the usual grumbling over special favors was laced with a special vituperation because of the "unnatural" nature of the king's affections, and the beloved risked being murdered before his patron's eyes. Yet the "English vice" has persisted throughout the ages, despite the most brutal repression. Given all the nobles who have followed the example of Rochester, that infamous 17th-century bun jumper, no wonder the House of Lords awoke from its slumber last year to override a bill from Commons that would have made the age of consent identical for homosexual and heterosexual acts. (It's 18 for queers, 16 for straights, and for Lords, anyone, anytime.)
A few years back, a bold band of lesbians rappelled onto the floor of Parliament to protest that inequity. But it will take more than leaps of faith to get the Lords to change their mind, since the same polls that showed Britons disposed to tolerance for gay pols also revealed them to be resolutely against lowering the homo age of consent. As for Murdoch, despite his apparent change of heart about outing, his record of homophobia is unimpeachable. As the Guardian reminded its readers, shortly after Murdoch purchased The Sun 29 years ago, he killed a story about what it feels like to be gay. "Do you really think that our readers are interested in poofters?" the press lord reportedly asked. (Murdoch appeared at the Voice shortly after he'd bought it to express his fervent wish that gay staffers would "go back in the cupboard.")
Murdoch's New York flagship, the puckishly phobic Post, made the scandal the centerpiece of Page Six last Tuesday, referring to the outed ministers as "Blair's Boys." (Gay men are always boys in the Post, for the same reason that they own tiny dogs in Hollywood films.) Rather than cast aspersions on its brother tab, the Post made The Sun look restrained for hanging onto a tape of Brown allegedly talking to a male hustler. This dovetailed nicely with the charge that Blair had facilitated the scandal by acknowledging Brown's homosexuality in the process of supporting him. One way or another, the prime minister was dragged into the British equivalent of Zippergate, proving that the right will cry vice at a liberal even when his fly is soldered shut. Yet, as with Clinton and the Republicans, the result of this furor was a backlash against the Tories.
It's an instructive denouement to a scandal that began last month, when Welsh Secretary Ron Davies was forced to resign after a man robbed him and made off with his car, which contained some government documents. Since the incident occurred in a gay cruising area, the victim was considered far from blameless, and the whiff of a national security breach gave The Sun an excuse to dredge up the ancient specter of a gay cabal. For all the good it did them, Murdoch's minions might as well have tried flogging The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Still, before we break into a chorus of Yankee Doodle Dandy, let's consider that, while homosexuality is not a crime in Britain (unless you're under 18, involved in a threesome, or disposed to s/m), it remains against the law in 20 American states. What's more, the Brits picked up the term gay mafia from the U.S. Of course, it's only used here to defame the meager ranks of out tycoons in Hollywood and the rag trade. We're kinder to our few out pols than to consider them part of a queer conspiracy, but that's because Americans are much more passionate about movies and clothing than they are about politics.
The recent spate of media-stoked sex panics demonstrates that, while the world is changing, the press room remains an atavistic place where decisions are made by the only mafia that dares not speak its name: the leadership class of straight, white, affluent males. The more intensely their power is questioned, the more righteous their moral outrage becomes. And just when you think you've heard it all, they tell you more. Fresh from its pledge to stop outing gays, The Sun offered its readers a new scandal last week. Seems a certain fire chief from Manchester is facing the sack for telling new recruits: "I'd rather be gay than black." Which proves that, when all is said and done, the myth of the powerful poofter is far from dead.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.