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Browne and the new morality of ‘outing’

In the past, tabloids outed gay people in order to shame them; now they out gay people to show there’s nothing wrong with being gay.

Tessa Mayes

Topics Politics

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Lord Browne, the former chief executive of British Petroleum (BP), has been labelled a ‘silly old fuel’ by a newspaper after he told lies to the High Court in London in an attempt to stop his former boyfriend, Jeff Chevalier, from speaking out to the Mail on Sunday. However, what is really ‘fuelish’ in this whole debacle is the increasing judgement of public figures by their private lives, and the confused attitude to privacy and free speech.

Many have failed to distinguish between judging whether Chevalier should have a right to free speech and judging whether he should receive money for his story. Brett Lock, a spokesman for OutRage!, the gay rights campaign group, says this is not a free speech issue because Chevalier is selling his story (1). The free speech defence is ‘quite startling’, Lock said during a radio debate in which I argued that Chevalier should not be gagged (there is still an injunction preventing him from revealing certain details of the relationship) even though, as it happens, Chevalier’s story does not interest me. The fact that Chevalier will be paid for his story doesn’t mean he should not enjoy the fundamental right to say what he wants. Free speech is about being able to speak freely, not necessarily having to speak for free.

Lock argued that the media continue to have a 1950s-style approach to gay people, and that if Browne had been heterosexual then his love life would not have been scrutinised in such a prurient fashion. Lock’s view is behind the times. The coverage of the Browne/Chevalier story is a product of today’s obsession with celebrity and private life. Plenty of heterosexual couples have their affairs and break-ups pored over by the press: consider the feeding frenzy over the divorce of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills in recent months, which has gone into great detail about who said what to whom, and so on. This obsession with private antics is not very healthy, but it isn’t an anti-gay thing.

Indeed, today’s widespread interest in public figures’ private lives has not been helped by OutRages!’s own campaigns to out public figures. In the past, those who were perceived to be anti-gay in public but gay in private were ‘outed’ by Lock’s campaign group. This approach can be seen as an attempt to break down barriers between people’s private lives – where often chaos, irrationality and emotionalism reign – and their pronouncements in public, which ought to be rational and sober. The act of outing was an early version of the politics of personality, where private passions and accusations of hypocrisy were used to judge public figures.

The drift towards judging public actions according to what the individual gets up to in his or her bedroom dumbs down our ability to assess public actions in their own right. Worse, it can fuel moral judgementalism, pettiness and prejudice based on an individual’s perceived psychological and sexual dispositions, rather than cultural and political judgments based on what they have said and done in public.

A spokesman for the UK Mail on Sunday hailed the newspaper’s fight to publish the Browne/Chevalier story as a breakthrough for ‘the millions of Britons who, through their pensions, are shareholders in BP, and [for] the tens of thousands who work for the company’ (3). This argument is bizarre. Towards the end of an article in the Mail, a reporter writes that BP found that allegations that Browne misused assets to help Chevalier set up a company were ‘unfounded or insubstantive’. This hardly justifies the paper’s crusade-like tone adopted in support of the shareholders. Rather the Mail, like so many others today, is making judgements about a public figure based on their private lives and dressing it up as an important public interest campaign.

The Mail on Sunday also says it was important to expose Browne because he had been caught lying in court. Yet if these lies were so serious, then a prosecution for perverting the course of justice or contempt of court can be pursued (and some people are discussing that). That the judge has not yet pursued such action against Browne reflects the relatively low level of his misdemeanour. Again, the Mail is trying to disguise its fairly salacious stories as a great expose of public lying, as if Browne were an elected MP trying to cover up a million-pound illegal arms deal rather than a chief executive who lied about how he met his boyfriend.

In the Browne/Chevalier case, it seems that OutRage!’s old outing-style has gone mainstream. In the past, tabloid newspapers outed gay people in order to shame them. Now gay people are outed in an attempt to show that there is nothing wrong with being gay. It’s almost as if poring over people’s sexual behaviour is a bizarre way of showing tolerance and acceptance these days. Encouraging gays to be out and proud is considered to create a more ‘healthy’ culture than one in which individuals keep their own counsel and keep their sex lives secret. Whatever you think about certain individuals being ashamed of their sexuality, the new ‘tolerant’ outing can be as damaging to people, and the idea of private life itself, as the salacious tabloid outing of old.

Whether Browne is gay is immaterial to his performance as a businessman. There are no laws against being gay and running a business. Browne may have made stupid decisions in his personal life, and then told a white lie to cover them up, but haven’t we all done that? Whether it’s dressed up as brave campaigning or socially responsible outing, the further collapsing of the barrier between private and public is likely only to fuel confusion, unfair treatment and prejudice.

Tessa Mayes is a regular contributor to The Spectator magazine. Email her at: {encode=”info@tessamayes.co.uk” title=”info@tessamayes.co.uk”}

Previously on spiked

Tessa Mayes discussed the introduction of talking CCTV cameras in What’s worse than Big Brother? Little Brother and a government campaign to name and shame Enviro-criminals. Brendan O’Neill investigated the new censorship in Turning society into Room 101 and outlined After Hate speech, the war against ‘Mate Speech’. Steve Bremner exposed a Pick and mix attitude when it comes to free speech while Maria Grasso and Lee Jones argued If we want open borders, we need open debate. Or read on at spiked-issue: Free Speech.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics

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