Brooks Newmark has resigned from his post as Minister for Civil Society after falling victim to entrapment at the hands of the Sunday Mirror. Newmark had engaged in a series of private messages with a male journalist posing as "Sophie Wittams", a "twenty-something Tory PR girl". The dialogue culminated in the exchange of naked images. The Sunday Mirror, in its spurious role as moral guardian of the nation, did not hesitate to publish the story. Newmark admitted that he had been "a complete fool" and announced his resignation.
Let's be clear about one thing: Newmark is the victim here. Infidelity is not a criminal offence, and private messages sent from one consenting adult to another are no concern of ours. MPs should be judged solely on their achievements or failures in the political arena, not on their sex lives. Critics of Newmark are assuming a prudish, self-righteous stance, one that would not be out of place in the memoirs of Mary Whitehouse.
It is needless to state that we live in a culture unhealthily obsessed with sex scandals. But what is most baffling is the way in which our tabloids somehow manage to combine prudishness with prurience, as though it were not incoherent to do so. With its evident fondness for lurid detail and sensationalism, the Sunday Mirror only makes itself ridiculous when it starts pontificating on matters of sexual conduct.
Although I am unsurprised that Newmark felt compelled to resign, this merely goes to show the extent to which the values of the gutter press have become broadly accepted in our society. A quick scan through the Twittersphere reveals plenty of expressions of disgust about Newmark's behaviour, but relatively few about the questionable morality of what is effectively a sting operation. If the editors of the Sunday Mirror had any integrity, they would sack the journalist responsible. They don't, so they won't.
Some have sought to justify the fate of Newmark on grounds of his lack of circumspection. This is based on the principle that naivety is an unforgivable trait, that if a minister can be duped in this way he is unsuitable to hold office. But those who take this view are subscribing to the very culture of sleaze that it is our responsibility to resist. It is a tacit endorsement of the idea that there is something inherently shameful about Newmark's conduct. That, surely, is a matter for him and his wife to decide.
In any case, the expectation of infallibility in our politicians is unrealistic. Susceptibility to flirtation may be a weakness, but so long as our government consists of human beings such weaknesses will be inevitable. This is a free society and Newmark has broken no laws. Sexual propriety in such circumstances is a matter for individual conscience. We should reserve our condemnation for those who would seek to police the private lives of others, and that includes exploitative news outlets seeking to boost their circulation.