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Open Collection of Student Writing (OCSW)

The Thorpe Affair and the Press

Michael Bronski says that after the Stonewall conflict mainstream press coverage of the event as well as homosexuality in general was “implicitly positive (Bronski p. 214).” In the United States, the decades of the 1960’s and 1970’s were a turbulent era for LGBT rights, such that it’s a surprise to see positive representation of homosexuality in such a time. Rebecca Rosen in an article for The Atlantic quotes Charles Kaiser’s representation of the events of the 60’s as a gay “Boston Tea Party,” an event that sparked a revolution despite some reaction of discomfort (qt. Rosen par. 2). This paper will discuss the media as it relates to the Thorpe affair. It was a different event with different circumstances and a different outcome, all things that lead to a much different cultural standing.

The Thorpe affair focused around British Member of Parliament Jeremy Thorpe’s homosexual scandals with Norman Josiffe (now Norman Scott). This affair extended into accusations against Thorpe of conspiracy to murder Norman Scott; the trial ended in an acquittal (Preston p. 308). This was a firestorm case, that drew plenty of coverage both in the UK and the rest of the English speaking world. Following will be two different implicit interpretations and representations of the Thrope affair, homosexuality, and the parties involved in the publications.

Leonard Downie Jr. of The Washington Post characterizes Thorpe as a victim, “he was Britain’s most dashing young politician. Now, ashen and hollowed cheeked, he is a ruined man (Downie par. 2) …” Meanwhile he characterizes Scott as a mentally unstable, and unreliable testifier. His descriptions of Scott are far from the noble light Thorpe is cast. “The star witness,” a “frequent psychiatric patient,” and a “financial parasite of a succession of male and female lovers and benefactors,” are the terms he uses (Downie par. 5).

The characterization in this exemplifies the tension between Scott and Thorpe. Thorpe was a high-value politician and Scott was an unstable accuser. Scott accused Thorpe of attempted murder and described his history of homosexual relations with Thorpe. As Thrope was a formerly standing member of the British Parliament this is an outrage, the first MP to be accused of such a thing (Scratton Par. 25). Scott was indeed an unreliable witness, however for understandable reasons. A major discrepancy was with regards to the accusations of homosexual affairs against Jeremy Thorpe. In 1962 Scott released a testimony to the police in which he described a homosexual encounter, however he lied about intercourse with the justification that, in 1962, homosexuality was illegal (Preston p. 289, 290).

For one who might see homosexuality as a grave accusation against someone, the mere thought of the accuser being unstable is itself a lens through which one could invalidate his or her claims. The article by Downie Jr. echoes the thoughts of the court judge overlooking the case, Hon. Sir Joseph Cantley, in his final statement to the jury. Cantley described Scott as a “hysterical, warped personality (Preston p. 304),” analogous to Downie Jr.’s characterization. Cantley barely touches on the probability of the accusations against Thorpe being true (Preston p. 305), while dismissing corroborating, prosecuting witness Peter Bessel as “a humbug” due to being both a lay preacher and self-described as sexually promiscuous—a hypocritic statement (Preston p. 304).

The irony lies most in Downie Jr.’s representation of the accused-assailant as the victim, and the accused-victim as the assailant. This—while the evidence could certainly be circumstantial as was claimed by Cantley and Downie Jr.—implies an anti-homosexual or even homophobic impression on the analysis of events, particularly when compared with the next article. The following article has a sharp contrast to the emotional appeal of this first article.

On August 5, 1978 an article in The Sun Telegram that serves the San Bernardino area titled “Plot to murder in gay scandal?” outlines the events, in a different light. There is no obtuse characterization of Scott. The article simply quotes Scott’s statements of defense in court. “I am being hounded by people just because of my sexual relationship with Jeremy Thorpe,” said Scott (qt. Plot to murder… par. 4).
This article characterizes Thorpe differently. Thorpe is not described as the object in a Greek or Shakespearian tragedy as The Canberra Times describes it (Thorpe story ‘a tragedy’ par. 1). Instead the Sun Telegram’s article Thorpe has since “become largely a political has been [sic], simply the member of Parliament of North Devon, a corner of southwest English land (Plot to murder… par. 8).” Thorpe is not portrayed as the leader broken down by these homosexual allegations, he is instead just a man, as is Scott. Scott is not portrayed as the accuser, but a man with grievances. The article portrays Scott as human.

Scott, who lives in the Dartmoor area, just south of here said at his home, “The whole affair has been most upsetting. The last thing I ever wanted to do was create a national scandal.” (Plot to murder par. 16)

This certainly is not an implicitly positive representation, however. This is a mostly neutral representation of the involved parties. It could be that this fair representation itself is indicative of the culture surrounding this case itself. A beloved, and famed politician is having his character assassinated by heinous allegations against him. This picture of the state of affairs would certainly be more believable than an unstable testimony from an unstable accuser.

Another possibility of the more neutral tone could be the setting of this newspaper. Michael Bronski describes the starting of the LGBT community in San Francisco, and by extension California, as a result of many factors including immigration, economy, infrastructure and other factors that constantly put the social system in flux (Bronski p. 46, 47). It would not be bad to define the more neutral tone given under the pretense of a more homosexual friendly atmosphere and audience.

It must be understood that this article exists in the same world the first article exists in. As previously stated, in contrast to this second article—as well as Cantley’s address, —the first article is rife with an implicit anti-homosexual bias. It is perhaps the more heartfelt, and sincere representation of the two, as well.

These examples must lead back to the beginning. Bronski describes the climate in the press after the Stonewall conflict as “implicitly positive (Bronski p. 214),” but we don’t see this with the Thorpe affair. The Thorpe affair is filled with implicit anti-homosexual bias from both the judge to the press, with the most implicitly positive representation only being fair and representative of the parties.
There are obvious differences between the Stonewall conflict and the Thorpe affair. Bronski states:

The events at Stonewall were not riots, but sustained street altercations of raucous, sometimes violent, resistance. The larger culture of political militance was evident in the slogans that emerged immediately after Stonewall, such as ‘gay power’ and, as someone chalked on the front of the now closed Stonewall Inn, ‘they want us to fight for our country [but] they invade our rights.’ (Bronski p. 209)

The Stonewall riots were a non-personal event, unlike the Thorpe affair involving accusations against very important individuals. People did not view the Thorpe affair as a class of people in a battle for liberation with a resulting cultural change, it was a battle between two people with individual selfish goals in mind. It’s from this that these varying viewpoints arise. It is not a noble thing to be involved in the selfish affairs of individuals as the essence of the argument is of character, while it is noble to support the underdog as an impersonal group.

The personal nature of the Thorpe affair sets the framework of the interpretations. This is proven by the points posed by Judge Cantley in the courtroom when addressing the jury, taken further into the media by Downie Jr. and others not mentioned in this paper. The most neutral take is also the most impersonal and is also the least implicitly anti-homosexual.

Perhaps this state of affairs is a reflection of society’s established views on homosexuality. One must only go back as far as the past decade to see the heated debate over open homosexuality in the military. In essence, the argument would be that the impersonal, group existence of homosexuality is within the sociocultural norm, while the personal, and individual existence of homosexuality is a disaster, in this cultural lens, and becomes a point of question in someone’s character.

The ultimate conclusion is, in this case, that homosexuality is a point of contention, not any celebratory, liberatory, affirmation of an individual’s personal rights. Dependent on the context, homosexuality and its existence in society is subject to the views and the feelings of the people which it occurs around. Being gay is subject to conditional acceptance, a cultural viewpoint antithetical to the individual liberty espoused by the enlightenment and American Exceptionalism. Only less than a single lifetime ago has this event happened. If we must only look back to recent history (what isn’t covered in the history books), to see only conditional acceptance of homosexuality, then what can be said but ‘what, if anything, has changed?’

Sources Cited

Bronski, Michael. “A Queer History of the United States.” Beacon Press Books. 10 May 2011.
Downie Jr., Leonard. “Murder Conspiracy Trial Leaves Thorpe a Ruined Man.” The Washington Post. 3 June 1979. www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1979/06/03/murder-conspiracy-trial-leaves-thorpe-a-ruined-man/5647a491-2d35-4681-9557-931d42c24380/?utm_term=.9b99cc09c52. Accessed 19 July 2018.
“Plot to murder in gay scandal?” San Bernardino Sun. 5 August 1978. cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SBS19780805.1.1. Accessed 19 July 2018.
Preston, John. “A Very English Scandal.” Viking Press. 5 May 2016.
Rosen, Rebecca J. “A Glimpse Into 1970’s Gay Activism.” The Atlantic. 26 February 2014. www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/02/a-glimpse-into-1970s-gay-activism/284077/. Accessed 29 July 2018.
“Thorpe story ‘a tragedy’.” The Canberra Times. 12 June 1979. trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/110951536. Accessed 19 July 2018.

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