05 Sep Keith Vaz and The Vacuum of Journalistic Ethics
That title sounds appropriately Potter-esq for England’s latest sex scandal: Keith Vaz MP.
Isn’t it comforting to know that, even as times change, virtually nothing else does? Here in America we’re being slogged down with daily reminders from the Trump side of things that (in the mind of his supporters) the Civil War never ended (or if it did, the wrong side won). And over in the UK, a British Member of Parliament is being publicly dressed down over the alleged hiring of two male escorts. The more they stay the same, et cetera, eh?
The abridged version of this British MP story is that a few weeks ago, a “newspaper” paid two male escorts to have an encounter with Keith Vaz, MP, and instructed them directly on how to film it and return it to said newspaper so that ‘journalism’ could take place.
One of the great hinderances of living outside of the country where such a scandal is taking place, is that I don’t personally know which newspapers are real and which are not. In the US, it’s fairly simple to determine which outlets of gossip and goings on are legitimate (The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The LA Times, are all long-standing, respectable institutions where integrity and ethics are prized over click-bait and rumor), and which are useless, fan-flaming time wasters (FOX News, NewsMax, The Onion, and virtually any publication with “Patriot” in the title, are all usually on a similar level of fact-free reporting) designed to cater to a borderline illiterate crowd, whose furrowed brows are fixed only on the “threat” of brown people coming to take from them (one may pick one’s variety of brown person and what they’re after, usually based on region and/or day of the week. Expect to hear lots about the Muslim variety around the anniversary of 9/11 next week – then likely a return to the Mexican “threat”).
But in reading through the coverage of Mr. Vaz’s alleged scandal, I was overwhelmed with the idea that I didn’t know what to believe. I didn’t know which paper was trying to present some sort of journalistic substance to the scandal, and which was merely trying to shame a man for predilections with which they disagreed. All of the stores all seemed to be drawn from the same well.
The fact that it seemed no one was even interested in challenging the idea that a newspaper would go out of its way to hire and instruct these gentlemen on how to trap this person, solely for the newspaper’s own gain, is an additional layer of horror to this story. The paper was not exposing a crime (it’s not illegal to hire escorts in Great Britain) and the notion that money was possibly being paid to them, from Vaz, via a charity, only came to light after the Sunday Mirror broke its story. That means that all they initially had to go on was the gossip of two (entirely reprehensible examples of) sex workers, and a plan to exploit the dignity of public office, and those who try to uphold it.
Imagine the surprise then, when the Guardian’s (see? And I had believed the Guardian to be quite respectable, as news outlets go!) Roy Greenslade posted today, this flimsy and shallow argument on how the Mirror was correct to have entrapped Mr. Vaz! And that it – somehow – wasn’t even entrapment! How colorful! It should be noted that Mr. Greenslade is himself a former editor of the paper that outed Mr. Vaz, and that his sympathies likely lie somewhere other than ‘journalistic integrity’ or the ‘public’s right to know.’ He moved on from that Mirror post after his own journalistic ethics were called into question by a contest he later admitted to rigging. So I’m comfortable discounting Roy’s thoughts on how newspapers ought to behave.
When stories like these break, it is often difficult for me to read about them (though you better believe my google alerts have been going crazy over this one), because I feel so strongly for the men who find themselves at the center. That man changes from story to story, but it’s very rare that his circumstance causes me to believe he ‘deserves’ what’s come to him. Mr. Vaz is just another in a long line of victims (I’m comfortable using that word with him, because I do think he was victimized by these escorts looking to make a quick buck and call attention to themselves) that the public loves to skewer for sheer entertainment value. Everything about Mr. Vaz was rife for this skewering: sex with men, prostitution, and not being white.
The truth is, this was salacious simply because we’re still not ok with men who have sex with other men. We’re not comfortable with hired companionship. We’re not comfortable with people who don’t look exactly like us (Mr. Vaz is Indian). Don’t believe me? Spend 5 seconds on twitter, and see what comes up.
But beyond all of those things, we’re not ultimately comfortable with someone needing. However much stories like these are played up to show the decadence or wasteful behavior of public figures who ‘should know better,’ at the core is always just this guy who had a human need to be touched and desired. Who wanted to take a few hours away from an intensely, unimaginably stressful career (Mr. Vaz has been in office since 1987), and just be “Jim.” Who sells washing machines.
He wasn’t trying to impress anyone with his money or status or power. He wanted to be a regular guy who satisfied an internal desire with another man. That Mr. Vaz is married and has children is especially unfortunate, but it doesn’t make his need go away. It doesn’t make his humanness go away. He wasn’t wrong to acknowledge need that probably haunted him every day of his life. He just did it with the wrong people.
Escorts who take their stories to news outlets are entitled to a special place in hell (to paraphrase Madeline Albright and Taylor Swift) for that behavior. Violating the trust of your client so ultimately and so severely defies even the language of condemnation. There’s nothing that can be said against those men that could possibly be as harmful and as vile as the action they’ve taken against Mr. Vaz. I can’t imagine the awfulness they’ve brought onto this man, or the feeling of entitlement that enabled them to do so.
If you’re someone of note in public life, I implore you to read this page of my personal site. Take precautions. Use encrypted email. Clear your browser history. And be sure you are with companions who have a reputation to protect, and who can offer you some modicum of reassurance that your life and your wellbeing matter to them.
My heart goes out to Mr. Vaz during his ordeal, and it will be unfortunate to watch him go through the denials and blame shifting that so often accompany serious accusations of this nature.
I look forward to a day when an MP can say “yeah, I hired male escorts. It was great. I had a lot of fun. I pretended to be a washing machine salesperson, and now I’m back at my real job, able to be effective and respectable, just like I was the day before I had sex with male escorts. Thanks for asking!”