Hacking into the Huhne family’s hurt
In these voyeuristic times, it seems that even the painful breakdown of a family can become an excruciatingly public affair.
It ought to be difficult to feel much sympathy for Chris Huhne, the UK Liberal Democrat party’s one-time secretary of state for energy and climate change and now an ex-MP.
Back in 2003, he was clearly a man with considerable public ambition. A member of the European Parliament (MEP), he had repeatedly tried and failed to become an MP proper over the course of the preceding 15 years. So given this, given his clear determination to be a force in public life, for him to then get his wife to accept his speeding penalty was always a potential invitation to scandal-hunters. What it was not was the act of a man committed to taking his public role seriously. So now that this scandal has come to pass, with Huhne this week pleading guilty to charges of perverting the course of justice, (as I say) it ought to be difficult to feel much sympathy for such a foolish man.
And yet sympathy there is. For Huhne’s fall has been the stuff of soap opera, not politics. After all, he wasn’t brought down for perverting the course of energy policy (where there are legitimate grounds for opposing him); he was brought down, ultimately, because of a family drama. And it is that family drama-cum-crisis, in all its mundane, intimate cruelties, that has now exploded into the public realm, complete with tales of marital strife and, incredibly, the publication of humiliating text exchanges between Huhne and his upset teenage son. And for that, it is really quite easy to feel more than a bit sorry for the whole lot of them, regardless of the extent to which they have conspired in their own fate.
It is still useful to remember how it was that Huhne ended up in court in the first place. Back in 2011, a year after he had left his wife Vicky Pryce for his press agent, Carina Trimingham – a woman whose first name many journalists seem to think is ‘bisexual’ – an interview with Pryce appeared in The Sunday Times. Though not explicit, the point of the interview quickly became clear: to damage Huhne. So to the question of whether it was true that Huhne had asked someone else to take his speeding penalty points, Pryce answered: ‘Yes… But look, there is such huge pressure on politicians to be everywhere at once, especially early in their career, so that they are visible – huge pressure – and he does drive a bit like a maniac.’ And with that, potential evidence of Huhne’s wrongdoing was now out there.
It took all of a few days for Labour MP Simon Danczuk to ask the police to investigate. And so it was that Huhne, having been dropped in it by the scorned wife, was to see his political ambitions ended, not in the court of public opinion, but in a court of law.
But attention this week has not just been focused on the matter of Huhne’s speeding-penalty deceit. Instead, it is the accompanying family breakdown that has been all too gleefully publicised. That is, a marital break-up, and the strained relations between a father and his son, have been turned into public property, an object for general scrutiny, judgement and, no doubt, mockery. This was exacerbated by the decision of the judge trying Huhne to permit the publication of a whole heap of texts between Huhne and his son (on the grounds that they relate to Huhne’s attempts to cover his tracks).
Needless to say, press-card carrying inhabitants of the Westminster village have had a field day. ‘Devastating personal messages from his son reveal how Chris Huhne’s attempts to escape justice ripped his family apart’, reported the ever-sober Daily Mail, before publishing the ‘personal’ messages in all their family-ripping detail. The respectable Guardian adopted a more sombre tone, talking of the ‘terrible toll the court case and the marriage split had on Huhne’s relationship with the teenager’. It then promptly revealed in text-messaged detail precisely how terrible this toll was.
The Independent’s editor Simon Kelner even offered up an exercise in imaginative sympathy: ‘It was all too easy to imagine the pain felt by Huhne, and relate to his predicament. He sends a text to his son, proffering a hand in reconciliation, or sending a message of support, or simply expressing paternal love. A few minutes later, his mobile pings, and for a brief moment his heart lifts, hopeful for what has been delivered. But then he opens the text to reveal an implacably hostile response. Again and again, over the course of a year, Huhne put himself through the same gut-wrenching process.’
Taken as a whole, the media response is revealing. It seems that so easily and thoughtlessly publicised has private life become, that voyeurism can be mistaken for journalism. (Or in Kellner’s case, hack-lit.) In fact, there doesn’t seem to be that much difference between the publication of a whole series of personal texts and the much-hyped crime of tabloid phone-hacking. Both involve the listening in, the viewing of, a set of personal, private interactions. It’s just that where phone-hacking skirted the bounds of legality, Huhne-humiliating has been approved by a judge. The journalistic means, it seems, were the problem for the anti-phone-hacking crusaders, not the voyeuristic ends – all the papers that complained about the News of the World hacking celebs’ phones have now salaciously published the contents of the Huhne family’s phones.
In Huhne’s very public fall, then, in his family’s full-frontal exposure, it is not ‘the political class as a whole’ or even the Lib Dems that have taken a battering. No, the real casualty here is that old-fashioned assumption that everyone, even a politician, is entitled to a private life.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.
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