There is nothing the British public loves better than a good sex scandal. This is why, during the past few weeks, those seeking news of the budget or the U.S. deficit would have been disappointed turning to the front page of any Fleet Street newspaper.
These pages were occupied almost entirely with stories of two scandals, the “Profumo Affair,” now nearly 25 years old but still rousing violent passions, and the “Pamella Plot,” now unraveling with the inevitability of a second-rate soap opera.
Both scandals display remarkable similarities--nubile girls from unconventional backgrounds, rich and powerful older men, naive and confused politicians, ruthless agents of intelligence services, a U.S. angle, wronged wives, repentant husbands and a sprinkling of aristocrats with distant connections to the Royal family.
The Profumo affair helped bring down the government of Harold Macmillan. The Pamella plot threatens only a marriage or two, but it is early yet. If, as the latest reports claim, Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service, the Security Service, the CIA and the FBI are interested in Pamella Bordes (nee Singh, later Chowdhury), the exotic young lady at the scandal’s center, and her relationship with members of Parliament, can the government of Margaret Thatcher sleep easy?
There is, however, another possibility. As the film “Scandal,” based on the Profumo affair, packs in audiences throughout Britain, it may not be coincidental that the Pamella plot surfaced now. Among the few things we know for sure about the Indian-born beauty is her determination to become a famous movie star. The bottom line of this latest sex scandal may be that Bordes is the smartest self-publicist since Orson Wells.
The role of Fleet Street in British sex scandals is a major one. Yet newspaper editors know that however much their readers enjoy a sex scandal, certain rules apply. There must be a “public interest” angle--no matter how spurious.
So when Fleet Street learned, in 1962, that the secretary of defense, John Profumo, millionaire husband of actress Valerie Hobson, was having an affair with Christine Keeler, an 18-year-old good-time girl, no one printed it. Even the Labor opposition declined to use the fact to embarrass Macmillan’s Conservative government. It knew that if MPs’ private lives were subjected to public scrutiny, Labor would hardly emerge lily-white.
The scandal took off only when Keeler unwittingly provided the extra element. She told a reporter of having had a one-night stand with the assistant naval attache of the Soviet embassy, one Yevgeny Ivanov--who, as everyone knew, was a GRU officer. This had happened before she started her affair with Profumo, but that did not stop Fleet Street.
With a little blurring of tenses, the story became “minister shares mistress with Russian spy.” This new element--national security--served as justification for a Labor attack on the government and the pillorying of Profumo.
To save his, and the government’s, skin, Profumo lied. He told Parliament he had never slept with Keeler. Finally, he had to admit his lie and resign in disgrace. The process that was to bring down the government had begun.
In the meantime every foolish rumor was not only printed but believed. If Profumo could have an affair with a pot-smoking call girl he had met when she was swimming naked in Lord Astor’s pool--and the girl’s jealous black boyfriend could fire six pistol shots at the house of the fashionable osteopath where she was staying--then anything was possible.
Perhaps it was true that President John F. Kennedy was sharing Keeler’s favors. Was this why J. Edgar Hoover was worried? Perhaps it was true that the Royal family was involved? And where did President Ayub Khan of Pakistan fit in? Not to mention Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Apart from the fact that Profumo had an affair with Keeler, most of the rest was untrue or exaggerated. Yet such is the power of myth in sex scandals; such was the anger of the old grandee Tories when the affair cost them control of their party, that in Britain the issue remains as sensitive today as in the 1960s.
The other two major scandals, one homosexual and one involving a mistress, had nowhere near the same impact. In 1962, an Admiralty clerk, William Vassall, was blackmailed into spying for the KGB after serving in the British embassy in Moscow. In 1983, Cecil Parkinson, the trade and industry secretary, was forced to resign when his jilted mistress, Sara Keays, who was expecting his child, told the Times of London all about it.
Both stories lack the fun and larger-than-life aspects that made the Profumo affair so popular. The similarities between Profumo and the Pamella plot explain why it is virtually the sole topic of conversation in Britain now.
Bordes, a 27-year-old, a one-time Miss India, separated from her French husband--who married her to give her a passport--was well-known in Fleet Street before the scandal broke.
She had been photographed many times in the company of such men-about-town as Andrew Neil, editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times; Donald Trelford, editor of Tiny Rowland’s Observer, and Prince Carol of Romania. Gossip writers noticed her at parties with Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, wealthy lawyer Carlo Colombotti and comedian Jim Davidson.
She was known to be a high-spirited girl. Gossip had it that, angry at being ignored by her escort at a literary banquet, she quietly set fire to a pile of paper napkins under his right elbow.
But no one considered investigating Pamella’s sex life until an anonymous caller--maybe Bordes--told Murdoch’s Sunday scandal sheet, the News of the World, that she worked for an “escort” agency and charged $1,000 a night.
It is doubtful even this would have found its way into print if the caller had not added that extra element--the security risk. Bordes had a pass to the House of Commons, worked as a research assistant to Conservative MP David Shaw and had been recommended by another MP, Henry Bellingham, a friend of the Princess of Wales. And she once went out with the minister for sports, Colin Moynihan.
The reporter entrapped Bordes in classic Fleet Street manner: posing as either a naval officer or a businessman from Hong Kong--depending on whose version you believe--offering her money and then, before matters went too far, “making an excuse and leaving.” Hours after the story ran, Bordes’ apartment was staked out by hundreds of reporters and photographers. But Bordes has vanished.
Again, as in the Profumo affair, there has been a proliferation of ludicrous rumors: Bordes was a link between the United States and Iran in the Iran-Contra affair; she was involved with arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi; she helped the Egyptian millionaires, the Al-Fayed brothers win the take-over battle for London’s Harrods department store, and she had been passing British government secrets to Col. Moammar Kadafi’s cousin, Ahmed Kadaf al-Dam, whom she met in Paris.
Given the obscurity of the MP Bordes worked for, and the secrets likely to come the way of the sports minister, would the Libyans really want plans for an identity card system for football hooligans?
No, this latest brouhaha is what people are calling “a tempest in a D-cup.” It is news only because Fleet Street says so and because it excites newspaper readers into the mistaken belief that everyone has a more interesting sex life than they do.
There is one lesson here, however. Editors of national newspapers used to be hommes serieux, respected by readers and politicians alike. Married or single, they would no more have been seen with someone like Bordes than they would have accepted a bribe. Those days are obviously over.