How rightly horrified people would be if a prime minister were to publicly “name and shame” someone for sexual behaviour that he, the prime minister, found “morally repugnant” but which was not illegal. For the first couple of decades after its decriminalisation in 1967 homosexuality would have fallen in that category in the opinion of most British adults. Adultery still does fall into that category. I am pretty sure Cameron claims to find adultery morally repugnant, so let us hear his reasons for not making public denunciations of all the adulterous celebs out there in the same way that he has denounced Jimmy Carr for tax avoidance. And if it is right for him to denounce adulterous celebrities he should also denounce adulterous cabinet ministers and Tory donors, of course. If he would recoil from this course (and to be fair, he probably would) then he ought to be able to understand what is wrong with the man given the highest power in the land publicly denouncing as immoral the legal financial behaviour of a named individual.
The Times‘s behaviour in this affair has been disgusting, too. By all means write features denouncing tax avoidance – personally I think tax avoidance is morally neutral at worst, and more often good, but I recognise that opinions differ – and I would say that using already-public sources such as company accounts to expose the behaviour of individuals to public hostility is within the rights of a free press even when my sympathies are with the person exposed. One citizen slagging off another citizen is a very different thing from the prime minister slagging off a citizen. But the witchunting smirk of the Times‘s coverage makes me sick. Celebrity exposés for the people who think they are above celebrity exposés. And the witchunting howl of the Guardian‘s coverage as its writers scrambled like hyenas for the scraps left over from the Times‘s kill make me even more sick. These are the same people who were so high-minded about the press intrusions into privacy cited at the Levenson enquiry.
The original meaning of “bully” in the phrase bully pulpit was merely “wonderful”, i.e. that high office gave the holder a wonderful high platform from which he could reach a wide audience with his sermons. Nonetheless I have little doubt that from long before the time President Theodore Roosevelt first coined the term the bully pulpit has been used for bullying in the modern sense. The very fact that a prime minister or president potentially has the power to do harm to a private individual ought to clamp shut the leader’s mouth. No such scruples stopped Tony Blair from joining in the mob that got Glenn Hoddle fired from his job as England football manager for his religious beliefs, but then Cameron always has said he was the heir to Blair.
Decent silence ought to be kept by the great even more firmly in the case of a private citizen’s tax matters than in sexual matters or matters of belief, because a modern democratic state has largely ceased to employ mutaween or inquisitors (“diversity advisors” aside), but it does employ an army of tax collectors, and the prime minister or president is at the head of that army. A responsible ruler would be horrified by the thought that a careless word against an individual might well cause servile tax officials to attempt to win the ruler’s favour by focussing on that individual.