The Sunday Times

August 8th, 2010

Networking is the magic circle of public life that must be broken

Nelson Mandela, Naomi Campbell, Imran Khan, the notorious Charles Taylor of Liberia and Mia Farrow, with assorted minor celebrities and hangers-on, smiling broadly at the camera together at a private party in South Africa in 1997 — this was a photo line-up that raised uncomfortable questions last week during Taylor’s United Nations trial at the Hague.

What on earth, one could not help wondering, was the saintly Mandela doing entertaining a man like Taylor in his own house, by his own personal invitation? Public men such as Mandela are, of course, obliged to get their hands dirty, shaking them with all kinds of undesirables from the faintly flaky to the flamboyantly vicious, but they do not, surely, need to invite them into their own homes and give them the endorsement of friendship which that so obviously offers.

Blood diamonds and revolting crimes against humanity — the central questions of last week’s trial — are extremely important. But so, too, is the underlying question of what company people keep. Does it matter? And should they be judged by it? Should they be careful about it? Campbell allegedly flirted with Taylor, as well as accepting diamonds, however small and dirty; her defence is that she didn’t know anything about him at the time, hadn’t heard of Liberia, and didn’t know they were diamonds.

Campbell’s education was sketchy and her face is her fortune, rather than anything else. Even so, as a woman who has devoted a great deal of time and energy to helping charities in Africa, you might think she could have taken a modest interest in African politics generally.

That is not, of course, the way the world works. There seems to be a natural alliance between great beauty, great riches and great power, regardless of almost anything else — regardless of intelligence or integrity. Thieves, fraudsters, mass murderers, plagiarists and psychopaths need not fear exclusion if their price is right. At John Bunyan’s Vanity Fair not many questions are asked, for understandable reasons.

Sadly, Taylor’s presence at Mandela’s house is just what you would expect. It happens everywhere. Kleptocrats, courtesans, fraudsters and posh drug addicts rub shoulders with world leaders and famous comedians, with disgraced politicians, movie stars, bestselling writers and a few of the better-looking aristocrats and royals thrown in for tone.

Perhaps it is unsophisticated to find this rather shocking. It is just “the way we live now”, to borrow the title of Trollope’s famous novel of 1875. Anyone with enough of a handle of riches or fame or sex appeal can easily open the door into the international club of the great and not necessarily very good; their hangers-on and sycophants can come along, too. Clearly it is a bad thing, clearly it is the regrettable way of the wicked world, but on the few occasions I have had the toes of my best shoes in this door I have found the atmosphere extremely interesting and, I regret to say, rather exciting.

I well remember the first time I saw Peter Mandelson at a party — his presence at such a smart, private, right-wing political soirée made me realise that sometimes parties can be more important than party. He was winding himself like a serpent around a couple of Tory grandes dames, hissing flattery, applying snake oil and making himself very popular. I was almost mesmerised myself, although I already disapproved of him, and was impressed to see such an operator. My Conservative hosts knew a great deal more about him than I did, so why was he there? No doubt they would in reply have used the time-dishonoured phrase, “He’s such good value”.

As we know, Mandelson has gone on to party hard and long since then. But perhaps one can party not wisely but too well.

Connections tend to mean co-operation and commitments and obligations, as Tony Blair clearly also discovered in a different idiom. Not for nothing is it called networking: the net of social connections seems very fine, but it can draw very tight and it’s hard to disentangle oneself from the mesh.

What on earth was someone who was European trade commissioner, like Mandelson, doing fratting — as we used to say, meaning cosying up to the Russian aluminium oligarch Oleg Deripaska at a time when his department was investigating aluminium tariffs? It does not suggest the right degree of detachment from such people. And what, come to that, was George Osborne doing there? I suspect that such is the sense of solidarity among the super-rich that they hardly see the need for discretion. Plutocracy and position (and the related parties) trump all other cards.

I was lucky enough to work for the Telegraph group during the reign of Conrad Black and among the many things that made him a good proprietor, in my view, were his parties. For me they were a wonderful source of contacts and ideas, but they were also great fun. Along with all sorts of wits and beauties and politicians among the guests were quite a few rather bad hats: on one occasion I noticed that most of the delightful people standing nearest to me either had been or were going to jail, or would at least suffer a sensational trial. And I once sat next to Henry Kissinger, the man about whom Tom Lehrer so memorably said, when the doctor got the Nobel peace prize, “satire is dead”. It added immensely to the power and the glory of those wonderful parties. There is something horribly seductive about them. One begins very quickly to feel to the manner born. Entitled.

For precisely that reason, there comes a moment when the fratting has to stop.

When super-rich and super-successful people get together, a sense of reality seems to burst into nothingness with the first bubbles of champagne. Friendship, or what passes for it — status alliance, shared holidays and habits — can be very corrupting. Favours that shouldn’t be asked, or accepted, can hardly be refused. I remember when his friends in the press, for instance, wrongly protected Jonathan Aitken before his trial because he was part of the party world. Principles do matter more than parties; it isn’t just priggery to say so. All those in the magic circle feel determined to make sure the enchantment continues, never mind what happens outside among ordinary people. It is corrupting.

My view is that all public men and women should declare not just their assets, but also their friends and all the parties they go to. That might make them more properly careful of the company they keep.