“Which was Brooks Newmark’s greater offence?” the Sunday Mirror might have us ask: marital disloyalty by indulging (with apparently misplaced optimism) in some online ‘cheating’ or showing the sort of naivety and lack of worldliness that signally contradicted his job description? It’s hard to say. The first betrays his wedding vows; the second his party’s expectation of him to behave in such a way to show that he was fit for office and that he was taking his work seriously.
So far so good: there is a nice moral clarity about all this. But then, on reflection, niggling doubts set in: while it shouldn’t be my place to speculate, was Newmark really ‘betraying’ his wife? How do I know that their union isn’t a perfectly happy one with an ‘arrangement’ when it comes to choosing sexual partners outside the marriage? Or, even if not the case, that she would have said something along the lines of, “You silly arse, for god’s sake, put it away and grow up!” and the topic would be closed in the Newmark ménage.
But wait a minute, any man, alpha male or not, who thinks an attractive 20-something would really want to see a 56-year-old’s willy (erect or flaccid) has to be living at least partially in a fantasy world. Can we afford to have fantasists running the country? (er… on second thoughts, maybe let’s not go there). Well, yes, I think we can – to this extent at least. On the whole, a libido or an erotic imagination shouldn’t preclude a man doing a decent job in politics – there are plenty of precedents. It might even make him a bit more human. And which is better: to have an unrealistic, virtual flirtation or succumb to more concrete temptation and opt for a night of making the beast with two backs with a Thai escort/Russian agent/Ukip recruiter?
So did Brooks Newmark have to resign? Is not the UK’s morality such that we now regard sexting as something essentially too frivolous to merit any serious disapprobation, something that has slipped into the country’s culture as a bit of naughty recessionary fun?
Can any left-leaning, labour-supporting newspaper really justify this sort of honey-trapping sting, just to see if a middle-aged man would forget to think with his brain and do so with his atrophying gonads instead? Was this ethical? Is this good journalism? Was it, even, a crass attempt to torpedo the Tory conference? So as to show complete impartiality, why wasn’t this a cross-party entrapment exercise? And now yet another, even more disturbing issue arises from this debacle: the Sunday Mirror’s casual use of a woman’s image, apparently without her permission.
It’s time – really, really, time – that we all grew up and took petty misdemeanours like this in our stride. As long as we go on giving oxygen to this 1960s, News of the Screws-type prurience, there will be idiots who continue to think that a Newmark-style operation is permissible because it’s a) of national significance b) on the right side of the public interest barrier and c) because all government ministers should be pure as vestal virgins, without a single milligram of testosterone between them.
But perhaps the real question we should be asking ourselves is this: when private lives are potentially blighted by a cheap, but reliable, trick under the guise of serious investigative journalism, where does the nation’s moral compass needle finally come to rest?