There’s an interesting subtext to the news breaking this evening that David Laws, MP and Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury (as well as one of the key negotiators of the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition after the General Election) wangled the expenses system, and it’s a subtext which sets a precedent.
The article on The Daily Telegraph website seems quite de rigeur until the ninth paragraph, when it seems at pains to point out the following:
Mr Laws’s partner is James Lundie, who is thought to work for a lobbying firm. The Daily Telegraph was not intending to disclose Mr Laws’s sexuality, but in a statement issued in response to questions from this newspaper, the minister chose to disclose this fact.
“I’ve been involved in a relationship with James Lundie since around 2001 — about two years after first moving in with him. Our relationship has been unknown to both family and friends throughout that time,” it read.
After a series of widely-publicised and rightly praised articles unveiling the proclivites and mores of our elected politicans and their spouses (including duck houses, moats and porn films) the Telegraph stumble over what remains as one of the last taboos in the English press: homosexuality.
It seems unlikely that were Laws siphoning off public money to a woman, the Telegraph would have any qualms in naming and shaming them. However, they have tiptoed around the issue of revealing such a thing as an elected official’s sexual orientation.
The question at hand is manifold: firstly, is it right that there is such a divide between revealing straight or gay relationships (illict or not)? Secondly, do politicians differ from celebrities in terms of how open they have made themselves in the public eye – and therefore is it right to reveal such a major element of a life that Laws has undoutedly been trying to keep away from the public eye? Laws is quoted in the same article as saying “we made the decision to keep our relationship private and believed that was our right. Clearly that cannot now remain the case. My motivation throughout has not been to maximise profit but to simply protect our privacy and my wish not to reveal my sexuality.”
What the Telegraph article did, despite protesting vehemently that they did not intend to out David Laws, was set in train a series of events which would make it nigh-on impossible for his sexual orientation to remain secret. In our media culture questions are asked of anything that seems slightly ambivalent and private lives are probed to breaking point. If the Telegraph had run the article solely on the premise that Laws had paid £40,000 in accommodation fees to his partner, readers (and Fleet Street peers) would ask for more details. Who is the person? What is their relationship to Laws? And, most importantly, why did it happen?
But the first question, before motive, would undoubtedly have been who. It is our fascination at seeing public figures (even if, as suggested above, most politicians open themselves up only to scrutiny based around their jobs, rather than their private lives) behind the carefully-constructed PR lens, and our joy at seeing them brought back down to earth, which drives investigation into their more salacious sides. Outing a politician as gay however, is given pause for thought. Rightly or wrongly (and, in a developed, cultured society, it must be thought wrongly) the sexual orientation of a person is considered an important factor in friendships, jobs and community. That the Telegraph were initially reticent to publish the story with more details beyond ‘a secret lover’ shows that there still remains a slippage between public perception of straight and gay relationships. Most damning of all regarding our acceptance of something that sits outside the traditional nuclear family is the fact that David Laws felt that he had something to hide because he loves a man rather than a woman.