George Pitcher: Desmond donation row exposes Labour prudes

Accepting £100,000 from a pornographer has outraged MPs. But is it simply because they disapprove of his downmarket magazines? asks George Pitcher

I don’t quite know why I find the story of the £100,000 donation to the Labour Party from Richard Desmond, proprietor of Express Newspapers, OK! magazine, and a stable of allegedly rather more titillating titles, so funny.

It may be the juxtaposition of Tony Blair’s protestations, in the style of Sir Cliff Richard, that he’s “a pretty straight kinda guy” with cash from the publisher of Big Ones. It may be the po-faced disapproval of New Labour’s women, upbraiding their leader like school matrons who have found girlie magazines in the senior common room. Or, I’m afraid, it might just be my residual schoolboy instinct to snicker about naked ladies being discussed in such a public and pompous place as the Palace of Westminster.

But beneath the squirming mirth, there are one or two aspects of the issue that are not being discussed, whether for reasons of political correctness or simply because it’s more fun to concentrate on those wonderful titles and to muse on how far Labour has shifted in its publishing tastes – from the Morning Star and Socialist Worker to the Readers’ Wives Guide to Working Girls.

The “pretty straight” comment from Blair came in the wake of the donation of £1m from F1 magnate Bernie Ecclestone, early in New Labour’s first term in 1997. That donation was seen as having potentially influenced the Government’s decision to exempt F1 from a ban on tobacco advertising in televised sport.

The £1m was eventually returned to a miffed Ecclestone, who found himself unjustly cast as the villain of the piece. Desmond’s hundred grand may yet be returned.

But it’s not the return of the cash that will bring what the Americans call “closure” to an issue such as this. These stories continue to run because they are of public interest.

Now, I have not counted the column inches, but the Desmond donation, despite being a tenth the size of Ecclestone’s, appears to have commanded much more attention. Clearly, size isn’t everything.

There also appears to be a greater degree of outrage over Desmond’s contribution than over Ecclestone’s. I don’t recall Cabinet members of the rank of Tessa Jowell, Margaret Beckett and Clare Short breaking ranks to censure the Government’s involvement with Ecclestone in the way that they have for Desmond.

Clearly the marketing of sex is of greater public concern in the minds of some politicians than the marketing of tobacco. They should know – they’re the ones with the focus groups.

This is a point worth remembering when we next accuse British American Tobacco chairman Martin Broughton of hypocrisy – as we did earlier this year – for discouraging his own children from smoking.

I expect the overwhelming majority of us would discourage – or even try to forbid – our children from smoking. But I’m absolutely convinced that very few of us take equally active steps to protect them from pornography.

The reasons for this are obvious. Tobacco kills many thousands of people every year. Masturbation kills very few, if any. Even promiscuous sex, which, it can be argued, porn encourages, kills very many fewer here than the early alarmist health campaigns about AIDS had us believe in the Eighties – and has nothing like the disease risk of tobacco.

So tobacco is a physical risk and pornography is a moral one (although some anti-tobacco campaigners tend towards moralising). This is interesting in so far as our media and some senior politicians, in reflecting public concern, appear to consider the moral risk of greater concern than the physical, judging by their relative responses to Desmond and Ecclestone.

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell is my local MP and I know her to be a wise and thoughtful woman. She declared last week, in a brave act of Cabinet dissension, that she didn’t “feel comfortable that the party accepted a donation from someone who earns part of his income from pornography… you either talk equality or you act equality.”

She may be right that this is about the exploitation and oppression of women as sex objects and that, as a consequence, Desmond’s money is contaminated. But there is a question of degree to be raised here.

Sex is deployed as a commercial weapon almost everywhere we turn. Drinks commercials feature lads pulling dazzling ladettes (and vice versa); sweet and harmless confectionery bars have been turned into oral phalluses and nobody is going to tell me that Shakira, the Colombian belly-dancer who has become something of a heroine to British teenagers, is sold solely – or even principally – as a songstress.

And that’s before the commercially driven pornography of violence in front of which we happily sit our children at home and at the cinema. I’m not for banning any of it.

But nor should politicians be. And if they’re not for banning it, on what moral grounds are they suggesting that the economic contribution made by such businesses is unacceptable?

I fear the issue is simpler. Their argument is less about morality than about social sensibility. Pornography is somehow OK if it’s

done stylishly, it’s just the downmarket stuff that’s offensive.

If that is the Government’s view, then it is positioning itself as snobbish and prudish. Now that really is a mega-boob.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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