Magazine article The Spectator

Sex, Lies and Tax Returns

Magazine article The Spectator

Sex, Lies and Tax Returns

Article excerpt

The confected scandal around the Panama papers is part of a concerted and sinister attempt to change what counts as private

Call this a scandal? A few years ago, it wouldn't have made the cut. If any reporter had taken the David Cameron tax 'scoop' into the now-defunct News of the World, he would have been laughed out of the building.

'OK, just run it by me again. The Prime Minister's dad was a stockbroker, right? Daddy Cameron operated this fund in Panama, or somewhere, and Dave had a few shares in it. Then before Dave became Prime Minister, he sold the shares and made a profit of 19 grand, after paying full capital gains tax in Britain. Where's the story?'

'But boss...'

'Don't you "But boss" me. I'm trying to sell newspapers here. Bring me shagging, bring me sex'n'drugs in high places, bring me something they'll be talking about down the Dog & Duck. Not this garbage.'

We've come a long way from Christine Keeler, the call girl who poleaxed the Conservative defence secretary John Profumo in 1961. If, instead of consorting with hookers, Profumo had been found to have intimate knowledge of offshore tax jurisdictions, he wouldn't have been consigned to lifelong political oblivion -- he'd have been made Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Admittedly, public mores have undergone a tectonic shift in the past decade or so. But the tastes of the newspaper-buying public haven't changed that much. Sex sells. Confected stories concerning tax avoidance don't.

I've always had a simple theory about front-page headlines. If you can imagine a news vendor shouting it at Liverpool Street station, you're in business. If not, forget it.

Thus: 'Married minister in sleazy knee-trembler with dominatrix! Read all about it!' You're off to the races. 'Minister in complicated, perfectly legal shares deal shock!' Nah, I've got a train to catch.

But even this tried and tested formula no longer holds. It has been revealed this week that before he became Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale went out with a woman he met on the dating site Match.com -- until he discovered that she was indeed a professional dominatrix. He says that when he found out her occupation he ended the relationship. (I suppose there's always the possibility that she dumped him when she found out he was a Tory politician.)

A number of newspapers investigated the liaison but decided not to publish because Whittingdale was a single divorced man and, in the post-Leveson hysteria, it would be difficult to argue that the story was in the public interest.

This has sent the anti-free-press Hacked Off crowd into apoplexy, claiming the papers held off because they were trying to blackmail Whittingdale, who was previously chairman of the Commons culture committee, which oversees the media.

Yet the story was put into the public domain by the BBC, which is now under pressure from Whittingdale, and in the normal course of events would take a very dim view of any newspaper which wrote about a minister's sex life. So for once Fleet Street is being attacked for being responsible! Talk about pots and kettles. It only goes to prove that the row about privacy is purely politically motivated and nothing to do with the rights of individuals to freedom from un-warranted scrutiny.

We live in interesting times, as the Chinese say. Had Cameron learned anything from his days as PR man to Michael Green at Carlton, he would have got out in front of the tax story sooner. By waiting until the truth was pulled from him like a particularly stubborn wisdom tooth, he turned a non-event into a political drama. He behaved like a man about to have his collar felt and was treated accordingly by the press. That's his own stupid fault. Cameron's prevarication sent the Pavlovian piranhas of the parliamentary lobby into a feeding frenzy.

The Prime Minister has now allowed himself to be panicked into disclosing his past six years' tax returns, which tell us precisely nothing we couldn't have found out already -- if anyone had bothered to look. …

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