Over at Bloggerheads, Tim appears to be right on the money in his assessment of the outing of Simon Hughes.
The 54-year-old bachelor MP appealed for understanding and sympathy – and vowed to stay in the race for the Lib-Dem crown. As Mr Hughes opened his heart during the interview he also admitted phoning a gay chat service – Man Talk.
Where, I have little doubt, the scoop originated… next thing you know, Simon Hughes is receiving a call from Rebekah Wade:
“We’ve got the goods on you, Simon… give us the exclusive, and we’ll go easy on you.”
Or as the BBC notes:
Trevor Kavanagh, associate editor of The Sun, said Mr Hughes had decided to speak about his sexuality after being confronted with “pretty incontrovertible” evidence that he had phoned a gay chat line.
In short, it appears that the Sun obtained information about Hughes phoning a gay chatline and ‘confronted’ him with it, from which it obtained an exclusive interview in which he made an open admission of his sexuality.
Hughes has, certainly to my knowledge, no obvious track record of hypocrisy on the issue of homosexuality other the matter of ‘the straight choice’ by-election campaign in 1983, nor can anything be read into his voting record in the Commons on what can be considered pro-gay rights legislation which shows him as absent on certain key votes, although to be fair, Hansard does record him as being present and voting in favour of equality on the age of consent on the first occasion it was to the Commons (1998) before being voted down by the Lords.
So on that basis, what he does in his spare time is of extremely limited public interest but for, perhaps, the matter of his having made one or two denials of late. His situation in terms of ‘the public interest’ is therefore rather different from that of Mark Oaten, where the combination of his position as Home Affairs spokesman, which means dealing with law and order, and the fact that he committed what is, in law, and illegal act of visiting a prostitute, much more clearly places his actions within the realms of legitimate public interest.
Even though the Sun appears to have ‘got the goods’ on Hughes, he was under no particular obligation to give them the exclusive, in fact a more sensible response might have been to spike their story by issuing a quick ‘mea culpa’ press statement and giving the interview to a newspaper such as the Guardian or Independent, one that is much more likely to give him a sympathetic hearing as well being much more likely to be read by Lib Dem members who will shortly be voting in the leadership election.
It seems possible, unless Hughes was paid for the interview, which I doubt very much, that the Sun may not only have ‘confronted’ him with that information but also, as Tim suggests, used it as leverage to obtain the exclusive interview.
All of which brings me on to section 21 of the Theft Act 1968, which reads as follows:
(1) A person is guilty of blackmail if, with a view to gain for himself or another or with intent to cause loss to another, he makes any unwarranted demand with menaces; and for this purpose a demand with menaces is unwarranted unless the person making it does so in the belief-
(a) that he has reasonable grounds for making the demand; and
(b) that the use of the menaces is a proper means of reinforcing the demand.
(2) The nature of the act or omission demanded is immaterial, and it is also immaterial whether the menaces relate to action to be taken by the person making the demand.
(3) A person guilty of blackmail shall on conviction on indictment be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.
So lets apply this definition to Tim’s suggested scenario to see if it might apply.
Q1. Blackmail is defined in terms of ‘making a gain’ – could this apply here?
A. Yes. The Sun are in the business of selling newspapers and would almost certainly have approached this on the basis that the story might sell a few extra copies but the story plus and interview would almost certainly sell quite a few more. So there is certainly a material incentive to get the interview that the employee who ‘confronted’ Hughes would be well aware of, as would the editorial staff of the newspaper.
Q2. What about an ‘unwarranted demand with menaces’.
A. Now this is where it gets interesting. If Hughes freely offered the Sun an interview then this clearly does not apply; but it gets rather more tricky if the Sun actually asked Hughes for the interview as there is certainly the possibility that if an interview was requested and requested in such a way as to suggest that the Sun might softpedal its story if he played ball, then that would provide an element of duress which could be construed as ‘with menaces’.
Potentially, then, and depending entirely on the manner in which the Sun obtianed the interview, one could argue that the possibility exists that they may have not only figuratively but literally blackmailed Hughes into giving them the exclusive and that should Hughes complain, or indeed someone else lodge a complaint, the Police would be duty bound to investigate if only to rule out the possbility of criminal charges.
If there was anyone out there inclined to lodge such a complaint.