Sympathy for the Devil?
Why the British press can’t give up on their “old chum” Ghislaine Maxwell
English journalists are clubby. You read the memoir of figures like Harold Evans or Toby Young and you’re immediately trapped in a claustrophobic, incestuous world where everyone has known everyone else since public school. It’s a culture where people have a tendency to cluster together in tight, defensive coteries. This was very much in evidence earlier this year when John Kay, former mainstay writer of The Sun, died. In 1977, Kay strangled and drowned his wife, Harue Kay. The fact of her murder was either glossed over or sidelined in innumerable tributes to Kay, some of which didn’t even mention Harue’s name. John Kay was by all accounts a clubbable man, a charming pub mate and bon vivant. So what’s a little spousal slaughter between buddies?
The same sort of twisted fellow feeling is now manifesting itself in the coverage of the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell, accused of facilitating and participating in the sexual assaults against very young women and teenage girls carried out by her long time intimate Jeffrey Epstein.
On Wednesday, Rachel Johnson posted a piece in The Spectator (a magazine once edited by her brother, Boris Johnson, currently the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom). The piece, “It’s Hard Not To Pity Ghislaine Maxwell,” ran as part of The Spectator’s regular public diary section, with the subhead, “We briefly met at Oxford.” (In context, the subhead reads like a Humbert Humbert humblebrag.)
The diary was in the same spirit:
It’s hard not to feel a batsqueak of pity for Ghislaine Maxwell — 500 days and counting in solitary confinement. I intersected briefly with her at Oxford. As a fresher I wandered into Balliol JCR one day in search of its subsidised breakfast granola-and-Nescafé offering and found a shiny glamazon with naughty eyes holding court astride a table, a high-heeled boot resting on my brother Boris’s thigh. She gave me a pitying glance but I did manage to snag an invite to her party in Headington Hill Hall — even though I wasn't in the same college as her and Boris. I have a memory of her father, Bob, coming out in a towelling robe and telling us all to go home. I’m sure fairweather friends would not reveal they went to a Ghislaine Maxwell party: as Barbara Amiel’s brilliant memoir Friends and Enemies proves, you only know who your real chums are when you’re in the gutter.
Solitary confinement is horrific and should always be condemned, but it’s possible to criticize prison conditions without strange enthusiasm for “a shiny glamazon with naughty eyes.” Nor is it easy to forgive a writer for making the world aware of “a high-heeled boot resting on my brother Boris’s thigh.” The reference to “her father, Bob” offers a hint of what is going on. Robert Maxwell was a major press baron, hence an employer of journalists. He died in disgrace, falling naked off the family Yacht, the Lady Ghislaine. After his death, his media empire crumbled like a sand castle in a rain storm. As the Guardian reports, “Shock turned to anger within weeks when a £460m hole was discovered in the pension funds of his companies. A borrower of unimaginable scale, he had illegally raided the funds to prop up his empire, which was on the brink of collapse.” Still, Robert Maxwell was part of the club and so is his daughter. The invocation of Barbara Amiel’s book with its talk of fairweather friends is revealing. After all, Amiel’s contention is that her husband Conrad Black (a Robert Maxwell figure in a way) was wrongly convicted and mistreated by fairweather friends.
Rachel Johnson is hardly alone in wanting to go the extra mile on behalf of Ghislaine Maxwell. On Monday, the Daily Mail ran a story with the headline, “Pretrial makeover! Ghislaine Maxwell shows off freshly-dyed black roots and new bob haircut and ditches prison jumpsuit for a black turtleneck and slacks at court hearing ahead of sex trafficking trial.” The long article focused almost exclusively on Maxwell’s physical appearance and also detailed her complaints about prison life. These complaints of “brutal” mistreatment were the subject of a big Daily Telegraph piece that got picked up by the New York Post.
Again, it’s perfectly acceptable, even necessary, to highlight poor prison conditions. I don’t doubt the American prisons are “brutal.” What’s odd is that publications that wouldn’t normally care about prison conditions are suddenly up in arms about the topic since the prisoner in question is Ghislaine Maxwell. The pity and concern so generously bestowed on Ghislaine Maxwell is exactly matched by the neglect and scorn given to prisoners who have done far less heinous things than what she’s accused of. But those anonymous and unknown people never threw the kind of parties Ghislaine Maxwell did.
(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)
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