In 1963 the Profumo affair rocked the political establishment. John Profumo, the then Secretary of State for War, had an affair with Christine Keeler, the mistress of Eugene Ivanov, a senior Russian naval attaché. Profumo lied to the House of Commons about his affair. However, when it became evident that on instructions from Ivanov, Keeler had tried to extract top secret information from Profumo, he had to resign. The whole affair lasted for more than six months. Hardly a day passed during that six months when there wasn’t some new revelation, each one seemingly more damning than the last. Harold Macmillan’s government was holed below the waterline. It managed to totter on for a few months after Profumo’s resignation, and then fell apart. It was the start of a new chapter in British politics.
The early sixties was an interesting time in British politics. It saw the birth of the ‘satirical era’: ‘That Was the Week That Was’ and Private Eye at the forefront of debunking the then ‘political elite’, which was in considerable disarray following Profumo. Interestingly, Profumo’s betrayal of trust and the fearless questioning of the new satirists, seemed to ignite a simmering resentment in many British people who felt that their trust, albeit a deferential trust, in ‘the establishment’ had been betrayed.
Today, we have ‘Hackgate. Are there any similarities with the Profumo affair? There are three important ones. Firstly, Hackgate is probably going to be as big, and as serious politically, as Profumo. We are already feasting on a daily diet of ever more scandalous revelations about phone hacking, and we have a Prime minister who may yet be undone by his association with someone at the heart of the scandal.
Secondly, it signals the beginning of a new era of communication. In the sixties it was the advent of television. It was also the beginning of a more aggressive style of political journalism which held politicians to account as never before. Today, it is the internet and the social media that have transformed the way we communicate. Importantly, they have allowed information to be available to the many not just the few: to be digested and discussed freely. Whether it’s MPs expenses or the ‘polite corruption’ of the lobbying process, the searchlight has been switched on and there is nowhere to hide. As with Harold Macmillan, today’s politicians are behind the curve when it comes to understanding the magnitude of this revolution.
Thirdly, it is about a betrayal of trust. Today’s political class has become disengaged from the electorate. We have a self-serving political elite that has deliberately allowed the likes of Rupert Murdoch and his media empire to have a huge influence over our political process – to such a extent that it has debased our democracy. Political expediency, political self-interest and the interests of News International now take precedence over the needs of the electorate. What ‘Hackgate’ has done is to reveal this betrayal – something many politicians are yet to realise.