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What we can learn from the disgraced There is often a wisdom that accompanies a personal downfall which we can benefit from listening to

Jonathan Aitken now takes confessions. Credit: David Levenson / Getty

Jonathan Aitken now takes confessions. Credit: David Levenson / Getty

March 13, 2020   6 mins

I generally have a soft spot for the disgraced. Many become considerably nicer people after having been through some very public fall from grace. Profumo is the example people often point to. Would this be true, I wondered, of fox-clubbing QC Jolyon Maugham, who popped up this week on Radio 4 to explain how the whole New Year’s day debacle has affected his mental health?

“Without the support network that I have, I am not sure I would be here to tell the story, to give this interview today” a noticeably subdued looking Maugham told the nation, who then compared himself with the television presenter Caroline Flack. Flack had taken her own life having suffered an avalanche of hostile publicity after being charged with an assault on her boyfriend. Maugham was suggesting he too had contemplated something similar after falling vertiginously from EU defending ‘hero’ to cross-dressing fox killer.

Spiked immediately called out his ‘shameless hypocrisy‘. And yes, hypocrisy there was. Maugham hasn’t been shy of orchestrating a social media pile-on himself, and used all his considerable legal clout to pursue young BeLeave founder Darren Grimes though the courts with all the sympathy of a chasing pack of hounds.

The instinct to say that Maugham deserves all he got is undeniably powerful. He had it coming. I know why people feel that way. But something else needs to be said here too, something about the redemptive power of disgrace. Maybe that sounds too grand, too theological; but I have met quite a number of disgraced people in my time, and I find that their experience often changes them very much for the better. The charge of hypocrisy no longer quite sticks.

I received an unsolicited communication from a well-known book publisher the other day. We are thinking about commissioning a book on hypocrisy, it went, and we thought you’d be the perfect person to write it. I wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended.

But they were correct to guess that this is a subject that fascinates me, not least because the whole question of hypocrisy focuses attention on that gap between how we present ourselves publicly, and the reality of our actual lives. This gap exists even in the most apparently morally punctilious among us — perhaps especially so. Yes, for some of us the gap is negligible. But, for others, the elastic that holds together the public and the private is stretched to near breaking point. Perhaps this is why many unconsciously long to be exposed, the tension unbearable, the release longed for. Lies are a weight to carry. And there is often much relief in being able to lay down the burden of deceit.

A new series of Confessions begins again next week. And this seems like a good point to take stock of what I have learnt, not least as it applies to the very notion of confession and what sense it might make in a generally post-religious world. The Confessions title is a bit of a tease, of course. Yes, some guests have made personal revelations. I won’t ever think of Bondi Beach in the same way again after Iain Dale’s account of an encounter there. But though this kind of stuff is fun, it is absolutely not the point of the podcast.

Partly, Confessions is a way of exploring interesting people’s big ideas. What also fascinates me about my guests, most of whom live under the bright sun of public gaze, is how they negotiate the relationship between what they profess and who they are. And this is tricky territory, not least because the public gaze is often unspeakably cruel, wanting to expose and punish people for tensions that exist within their own lives.

A number of Confessions fans have challenged me that I am insufficiently robust at interrogating those contradictions within the lives of my guests. Partly, this is because I do not believe I have earned the right to do so. I am a priest first of all, not a journalist. And the role of self-appointed public prosecutor is not one I have any appetite for. Indeed, I rather despise the species of journalism that exposes, with mock horror and fake surprise, the fissures upon which all human life is precariously poised. And its talk of ‘morality’ is mostly a cover for cruelty.

Most of us do not have bodies buried under the patio so to speak, and we are not all pretending to be something else. The words attributed to the former Times foreign correspondent Louis Heren, “When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself, why is this lying bastard lying to me”, represents an approach to the search for truth that presumes the worst of human beings. And this distorts the fact that most people are trying to do the right thing, however compromised we may sometimes be. Nonetheless, the human condition is richly variegated, and the different parts of our lives don’t always fit neatly together.

In other words, the exposé doesn’t necessarily tell the whole truth. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it in his Letters and Papers from Prison (arguably, the holiest book of the 20th century) there is a certain journalistic model which insists that it is only when a prominent person is exposed in their underpants or bath that the truth about them is revealed. This is often terribly misleading. The truth of a human life is often far more open to view when it is laid out as an extended narrative, as a life lived; it is just as much a horizontal phenomenon as a vertical one.

And, I hope, this manner of approach — my manner of approach — elicits the sympathy of the audience as much as it generates fresh perspectives. It is particularly pleasing when a listener describes their surprise at discovering how much they identify with someone with whom they thought they had little in common. This too is the bearer of truth, and one that challenges the audience as much as the guest.

This week we recorded Rev Jonathan Aitken’s Confession. Aitken was a former Conservative minister who served a number of months at Her Majesty’s pleasure after perjuring himself on oath (and on the Bible) after lying about who paid his hotel bill at the Ritz in Paris. Doubling down in his denial, Aitken famously took the Guardian to court: “If it falls to me to start a fight to cut out the cancer of bent a twisted journalism in our country with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play, so be it.” Aitken, of course, was lying. But the Guardian’s exposure of his deception, though absolutely the correct thing to do, was only the beginning of the story.

The Reverend Jonathan Aitken now takes confessions himself, sometimes in Pentonville prison, where he serves as a chaplain. And I suspect that he is just the sort of person the lags are queuing up to confess to. After all, what better person with whom to share one’s sins than a man who knows a thing or two about having been there himself. Someone who can speak about judgment without being themselves judgmental — isn’t that precisely what we want from a confessor?

This is not supposed to be any sort of defence of Jolyan Maugham. I have used his example to speak in generalities. But if you can filter out that shrill cry of hypocrisy for just a moment, there is often a kind of wisdom that accompanies disgrace which we all might benefit from listening to.

I find the disgraced generally kinder people: more forgiving. Wouldn’t it be something if Maugham could find it within himself to say sorry for his own persecutory behaviour? But it’s more than this. Disgrace tends to release people from the hypocrisy-inducing effects of personal ambition and excessive self-regard. And the experience of disgrace allows people to finally come clean about who they really are. “It is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found” wrote the psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott. That perfectly describes the dynamics of confession.

Remember the game of hide and seek you played as a child? On the one hand, you don’t want to be found – that is the point of the game. But also, nor do you want people to give up looking for you — not caring enough to come and find you. In psychoanalytic terms, hiding is a strategy of protection. And an understandable one given the threats that exists out there. But not being found is worse. This is the territory that the confession inhabits. It is all about the tension that exists between wanting to be recognised and yet feeling there is something unbearable about this too.

In public life, this tension is exacerbated by the heightened threat of public opprobrium for transgression. And so public figures are obliged to negotiate an exaggerated version of hide and seek, and in their struggles with this game they reveal in bold a similar tension that is at work within us all.

You may call it hypocrisy. I call it being human.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.


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