For the majority of the 1990s the news agenda in the UK and USA was dominated at frequent intervals by politically significant sex scandals that produced widespread media coverage. In the UK, in the first half of the 1990s, a seemingly endless stream of sex scandals buffeted the Conservative Government. Unwisely, the Prime Minister, John Major, in an attempt to unite a divided party around a traditional moral agenda, had called for a return to ‘family values’ in a speech in 1993 (Epstein and Johnson 1998: 73-98). The resulting contradiction between the normative ideals guiding policy­making and the deviant behaviour of prominent members of the government made them susceptible to accusations of hypocrisy as well as immorality. The government was fatally undermined by these events, not least because the Conservatives became known as the party of ‘sleaze’. During the same period, the British Royal Family was subjected to an equally relentless stream of rumour and revelations of sexual misconduct as the marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles, the heir to the throne, disintegrated. The election of the New Labour Government in 1997 and the death of the princess in a car crash later in the same year brought this period of intense exposure of the private lives of the British establishment to a (temporary) close. It was soon replaced, however, by the global reporting of the President Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal.

There is nothing new about this phenomenon. There has been a long tradition of sex scandals in the political culture of the UK and the USA, nurtured by the popular press and by a lack of privacy laws of the type that protect French politicians from exposure (Thompson 2000: 130). British tabloid newspapers, in particular, are strongly sexualized, while the broadsheet newspapers and television will pick up on these stories once they have broken, often to provide meta-commentary on the events and their potential consequences, especially where political figures are concerned. Never­theless, their intensification through the 1990s has been argued to be symptomatic of a number of related cultural changes in modern societies. John Thompson (2000), for example, has argued that ‘mediated visibility’ and the accompanying cult of celebrity are making politicians’ personal character and reputation the primary foundation of political power, while policy matters are sidelined. Liberal democracies, he argues, are finely balanced between a need for openness and scrutiny to maintain democratic control over political elites and the dangers of pervasive distrust and cynicism. Scandals undermine politicians’ reputation and consequently the trust on which the political process is based (ibid.: 246-59). The management of scandals is therefore fundamental to the political ecology and explains the emphasis on news management and ‘spin’ that gives communications directors and press officers a central role in contemporary government.

The development of modern media networks has been one of the factors fuelling the growing importance of scandal in the political arena. The development of visual communication technologies and their use by the media industries has produced a culture in which people’s private lives are increasingly open to public scrutiny. Intensified competition, expanded capacity and lighter regulation of the television industry accelerated this trend as new genres of media spectacle were developed to attract larger audiences (Lull and Hinerman 1997; Thompson 2000; Kellner 2003). These ‘infotainment’ formats, such as confessional talk shows, 24-hour rolling news channels and live coverage of court cases, were all ideally suited to the dissemination of scandalous stories, whether of celebrities, politicians or ordinary people made famous by their ‘deviant’ behaviour. The watershed was in 1991 when the O. J. Simpson murder trial in the USA gripped the whole nation, showing just how effectively scandals could be used by television to attract large audiences as events unfolded, sometimes live on television, over extended periods of time (Morrison 1997; Kellner 2003). The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal escalated over the course of more than a year, culminating in the televised impeachment proceedings against the President. As each fresh revelation occurred its commodity value as ‘news’ was renewed, while its existence in recorded form allowed for its retelling. It received extensive coverage throughout the world, facilitated by global news networks such as CNN (Thompson 1997).

Although each has its own particular trajectory, Thompson (2000: 67-75) has proposed a model of the typical unfolding of a mediated scandal in four phases: the pre-scandal phase, the scandal proper, the culmination and the aftermath. A trans­gression of moral codes is the point of origin, but in the pre-scandal phase this will be known only to the people directly involved. The scandal occurs when those people fail to control the ‘leakage’ of information from the private areas of their lives into the public domain, where it becomes visible to thousands or millions of others. Yet the scandal proper only begins if the transgression is regarded with disapproval. It is then amplified and disseminated by a proliferation of media reports on the affair, which generate a climate of moral censure. This will extend over a period during which allegations and revelations are publicized and their veracity is investigated until a culmination is reached – when media organizations decide that public interest in the affair has waned or when a ‘line is drawn under the affair’ in some way, by a con­fession, a resignation or a court verdict. It may constitute a ‘media event’; that is, ‘an

exceptional occasion which is planned in advance and broadcast live, which interrupts the normal flow of events and which creates an atmosphere of solemnity and high expectation’ (Thompson 2000: 75). Television is central to these types of staged inter­vention, such as happened in the O. J. Simpson trial when the verdict was delayed in order to be broadcast live, or in the televised impeachment trial of President Clinton.

As the people involved in the scandal get caught up in a process that is very difficult to control, the original transgression at the centre of the scandal is often compounded by ‘second-order transgressions’. Typically these involve deception, which is later exposed as such, as participants seek to deny the offence, in the hope of avoiding public humiliation and shame, by facing down their accusers. Media evidence is one of the factors that gives a scandal ‘legs’, with the publication of letters, tape recordings, photographs and video footage. The fact that they have been recorded allows them to be replayed over and over again on television (Thompson 2000: 68). In this process of repetition certain phrases and images become iconic, circulating in popular culture in multiple ways but especially in cartoons and jokes. Even where guilt is established, the effects of a media scandal, its aftermath, are hard to predict in advance. It can result in irrevocable damage to people’s reputations, from which they will never recover, or, alternatively, their careers might subsequently prosper from the publicity. Uncertainty contributes to complex negotiations while the scandal unfolds as each of the par­ticipants seeks to profit from, rather than be destroyed by, the publicity. This explains the growing importance of press officers and public relations advisors, some of whom have, as a consequence, acquired celebrity status. They use their established media contacts in an attempt to control the flow of information, and give expert advice to their clients on how to present themselves in the best possible light, to gain public sympathy.

Politicians caught up in a sex scandal can berate journalists for ignoring the really important political news, betraying their proper professional role of acting in the public interest, by focusing instead on the ‘trivial’ matter of politician’s private lives. This is an especially effective approach where television is concerned because it chimes with the prevalent concerns over ‘dumbing down’ as television succumbs to a news agenda set by the tabloid newspapers. Wider concern over the loss of privacy in contemporary media cultures is also invoked when it is argued that the exposure of people’s private lives to public scrutiny is a threat to the freedoms guaranteed by a liberal democracy (Thompson 2000: 238-41). Clinton used an appearance on 60 minutes in 1992, with his wife Hillary, to appeal to traditional liberal sentiments about the ‘privacy’ of the family and his marriage. In effect he said ‘it’s none of your business’ to underline the point that serious journalism should be about the real political issues, not sexual tittle-tattle (Gronbeck 1997: 127). He chose to say it on a network television news magazine, immediately after the Super Bowl, thereby ensuring a much larger audience than usual. They then drew a line under the affair, consigning it to another time and place of no relevance to the present in a bid to bring the story to a conclusion. ‘Thus the affair was safely consigned to the past/private, and of no political relevance to the public/future’ (Gronbeck 1997: 128). It was an effective strategy, if only in the short term, because the news media are not interested in history.

A quite different strategy underlies the development of another television genre, the confessional interview as public relations event, in which rather than asserting a right to privacy the interviewee hopes to take control of the media agenda, to reframe the story and to portray a sympathetic image by revealing previously hidden secrets. A famous example of this is the interview with Princess Diana on the flagship BBC current affairs programme Panorama in 1995. It set a much-copied precedent as a means for figures at the centre of a scandal to give their side of the story in a highly rehearsed and controlled format. Indeed, Martin Bashir, the interviewer, has built his subsequent career on this role, leading to his being chosen by Michael Jackson in 2003 as the person to rehabilitate his tarnished reputation following accusations of child sexual abuse (Wells 2003a), a strategy that failed to prevent his subsequent arrest. The very high viewing figures and deluge of subsequent media commentary in both these cases indicate the potential these interviews have as ‘event’ television with global reach. The style of these interviews owes much to the confessional culture of television talk shows. As with the case of Diana’s 1995 interview, these have provoked dis­agreements about their feminist potential for allowing women to tell their side of the story. These debates are discussed further in the next section, followed by a detailed examination of the responses to the Panorama interview.