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Keith Vaz’s rent boy scandal exposes the worst of homophobic British journalism

Keith Vaz’s rent boy scandal exposes the worst of homophobic British journalism

Tabloids publish Keith Vaz 'sex shame'

I am a journalist, and I don’t give a flying banana about your private life.

That may sound surprising. Wait, you might say, aren’t you the type of person that hacks into phones, deletes voicemails, and goes through trash to get the dirty gossip by any means necessary?

No, I don’t do that. And that kind of journalist is, you would hope, a dying breed. Ever since the News of the World shut down in flames, any reporter knows that you don’t have the protection of the name of the national newspaper and its lawyers behind you. If you screw up, you’re going to get named and shamed.

So you would hope ‘sleaze’ stories, reporting on the sex shaming and vices of British public figures, would be less common.

But here we are again. Splashed across the papers, we have Keith Vaz accused of paying male escorts for their services and offering to pay for cocaine for them.

The high profile Labour MP denies the claims, suggesting he may have been a victim of a ‘sting’ in which he was deliberately drugged.

Vaz is married to a woman, has children, and chairs a home affairs committee that gives him a vast amount of influence on prostitution and drugs policy.

Many reporters would defend printing this story. It’s in the public interest, they would argue, to know whether Vaz has ever taken or bought or offered drugs and paid for sex workers.

Of course, you could also claim it makes him more knowledgeable about the subject.

You could also say if Vaz knowingly cheated on his wife, that’s of course disgraceful. But sex work as long as it is consensual is not wrong, buying (but not taking – which he is accused of) drugs is in itself illegal but not harmful to other people.

But this is the problem. It’s only juicy, it’s only ‘sleazy’ if it also means outing someone.

We don’t know how Vaz identifies, if the story is true at all, but this isn’t the first time this has happened in the name of ‘fair game’.

Look at Mark Menzies, or Harvey Proctor, or Mark Oaten. It doesn’t matter what politics you have, if you’re supposedly ‘caught’ with a rent boy then you should be prepared to face the wrath of the British press.

Tabloids routinely turn down stories involving MPs caught with female prostitutes. While it does happen, of course, it’s always going to be more sensational if it involves a man lying to his wife to be with another man.

There’s enough dirt in the vaults of some newspapers to print ‘exposés’ on MPs for months. It wouldn’t be surprising if there are other politicians on that exact same committee who have ‘sleazy’ stories hidden in those files.

Why doesn’t it get printed? Well, you can make your own minds up.

But what about Vaz? He’s fighting back. In a statement, he said: ‘It is deeply disturbing that a national newspaper should have paid individuals to have acted in this way. I have referred these allegations to my solicitor who will consider them carefully and advise me accordingly.

‘At this time I do not want there to be any distraction from the important work the home affairs select committee undertakes so well.

‘Select committees do vital work in holding the government and others to account. I will of course inform committee members first of my plans when we meet on Tuesday. My decision has been based entirely on what is in the best interests of the committee which I have had the privilege of chairing for the last nine years.’

The Mirror, who published the story, defended their right to print it.

‘We did not entrap him’, a spokesperson said. ‘We acted in the public interest and, in so doing, we omitted many other details of the meeting between the men and Mr Vaz.’

The only reason you should out someone is if they are homophobic, actively doing their best to make life worse for LGBTI people. And even then, journalists should think very carefully in whether the story justifies the outcome.

But if they’re just minding their own business, having a private life, then it’s not fair game. It’s wrong, it’s horrible for the family involved, derogatory to the LGBTI community, and it accomplishes nothing.

The next time a ‘sleazy’ story involving a politician and rent boys comes up, then the tabloids should remember that.