In 1998 the ‘hottest’ story on prime time television news was the scandal of US President Bill Clinton’s sexual exploits with a young intern in the White House, Monica Lewinsky. Commentary on the scandal appeared on the network news at the family dinner hour, provoking concerns about how parents should handle the ensuing questions from their children. Newsweek gave advice on ‘How to handle your children’s questions about the Clinton scandal’, headlined with the query ‘Mom, what’s oral sex?’ Newsweek’s advice was to refuse to discuss the details but instead to reinforce the moral point that Clinton had behaved very badly (Merck 2000: 7). This example illustrates the fact that one of the consequences of high-profile, political sex scandals in the 1990s was to bring discussion of ‘deviant’ sexual activities into the very centre of the network television schedules. Scandals on television and scandalous television seemingly conflict with the institutionalized address of television to the ‘family’, with its reliance on ideologies of childhood innocence, and contributes to moral panics about the effects of the media. Yet scandal is the dominant form through which ‘deviant’ sexual practices are circulated in the mainstream media. This is because of its double structure, nurtured by Puritanism, of exposing sexual trans­gression in order to condemn it. Therefore scandal, and the news media that circulate it, function as a significant regulatory discourse through which the boundaries of acceptable sexual behaviour are continually renegotiated.

This chapter explores this symbolic process and its political implications through a discussion of the characteristics of scandals as media events, and the role played by television in their circulation. It engages with the debates over the effects of scandals and whether they do, as some commentators believe, reinforce the social, sexual and political order, or, as others argue, undermine it. Whether the latter is seen as a threat depends on one’s own relation to that order. One of the pleasures of scandals is the opportunity they afford to undermine and mock the powerful, although they can just
as easily be used against the powerless. A central issue, which develops the arguments introduced in Chapter 2, is the liberal division between the public and private spheres and how it can work to protect the privileges of the powerful and to hide sexual exploitation. The potential for radical uses of scandalous publicity has therefore been recognized in bohemian, feminist and queer critiques of liberal sexual politics. At the psychological level, the chapter explores the dynamics of secrecy, shame and celebrity exposure to explain the intense levels of popular engagement that scandals provoke. Why have scandals become such a staple of the contemporary media? What is it that makes them so popular?