Inappropriate flirting – the great modern sin

Now at least we know why it has been difficult to find a hotel room on the Suffolk/Norfolk border recently.

Apparently, there has been an invasion of women anxious to catch a glimpse – or more – of my neighbour Julian Assange, currently in residence at Ellingham Hall. “We definitely had a problem with groupies,” his host, Vaughan Smith, has said. “Julian is hunted by a certain type of woman, and hunted is the right word, who can get quite pushy.”

It is not only the groupies who have been giving Assange grief. In her new book, The Revolution Will Be Digitised, the eminent investigative journalist, Heather Brooke, tells the story of her disenchantment with the hero of the Wikileaks saga. Once she and Julian had seemed to be on the same side, fighting the good fight for free speech against the evil monsters of government and big business, but the more she saw of him, the less she liked him.

Their falling-out says more about current sexual politics than the ethics of leaking information. The way Brooke describes Assange, he sounds like a genuine misfit – paranoiac, ambitious, possibly delusional, borderline creepy, and with low standards of personal hygiene.

He is an unlikely target for gangs of groupies, one might think, and yet, according to Brooke, he has a certain magnetism. “When he had his eyes on me I had the sense he was looking into my soul,” she writes. “The teenage girl in me swooned, but the investigative journalist concluded that the detached/intense thing was a technique.”

In spite of the swooning, Brooke portrays Assange as a heavy-handed flirt who was “unaware of personal boundaries”. Married and not the slightest bit interested, she found him rather too insistent. The final straw came when, having jokingly been referred to as a messiah, he asked her whether she would like to be his Mary Magdalene and bathe his feet at the cross.

It is not a cool chat-up line, that’s for sure, but, reading the press serialisation of Brooke’s book, I was surprised to find myself feeling slightly sorry for this odd, socially inept man. He may well have been guilty of a lumberingly clumsy come-on but, in the world of grown-ups, is that such frightful crime? In the context of the important debate surrounding the leaking of confidential, high-level information, is not the story of how a man flirted with a woman not something of a distraction?

As the person who set in motion the exposé of MPs’ misuse of allowances and doggedly saw it through to the end, Heather Brooke is clearly as tough and resolute a journalist as one would wish to find. She is certainly capable of looking after herself.

Yet, like others before her, she has ended up playing the vulnerable-woman card. In this age of empathy, inappropriateness has become one of the great modern sins, and flirtation is regularly confused with something altogether more serious. It is as if we now understood that, when a man engages in ill-considered banter with a woman, that is, by its nature, an act of aggression.

Employment courts are kept busy by such cases, and the press love to report them. Last week, we heard how a managing director on a salary of £90,000 took her chairman to court for calling her a “sexy nurse”. She lost.

It is easy, particularly when high-profile rape cases (including Assange’s) are in the news, to conflate flirtation and sexual aggression and create a myth of villains and victims, but it helps no one, least of all women.

Green in judgement, but not in power

Congratulations to Greg Clark for overtaking Ed Vaizey as the government minister who has executed the most comprehensive handbrake-turn while in government. Where Vaizey has radically modified his enthusiasm for public libraries, the local government minister has been developing a somewhat complicated moral position when it comes to planning and green spaces.

He has been much in the news as he pilots the removal of restrictions on development across the countryside. Yet, since 2005, he has argued, with commendable determination, in favour of constraints that would protect urban gardens from being developed. “For years, the wishes of local people have been ignored as the character of neighbourhoods and gardens have been destroyed, robbing communities of green space,” he said just over a year go.

Clark’s website describes him as “a thought leader”, so perhaps he could unscramble his position on planning for us. Green space is good, but only if it is behind urban and suburban houses; planning restrictions are bad, unless they happen to be protecting town gardens.

Phone hacking can lead to divorce

As if there were not enough to worry about, those of us in settled relationships should be on red alert. According to the divorce lawyer Vanessa Lloyd Platt, marital rift and separation are very much in the air at present. There has not been a summer like it for over 30 years. The news is to blame, apparently. “Couples are unnerved by the recession; the News of the World scandal has unveiled corruption at every level. Their worlds have been shaken up and they are questioning everything,” says Lloyd Platt.

It seems that, if you read about the FTSE 100 plummeting, you are in danger of looking up and wondering if your wife is not losing a bit of value, too. For her part, she is likely to be seeing you as a domestic Glenn Mulcaire. For what it is worth, I pass on the warning.

Independent, Tuesday, 9 August 2011