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From the file

Pariah | What does Harvey Proctor’s life tell us about the limits of our tolerance, and what we’re prepared to do to people who overstep them?

Pariah

Intolerance

Intolerance

Harvey Proctor’s political star burned brightly in the 1980s. He was the anti-immigrant heir-apparent to Enoch Powell, until a tabloid sting exposed him as a gay man who paid for sex


transcript

If a tiny handful of words could ever really sum up all the struggles of a man’s life, then maybe this little smattering could do the job for Harvey Proctor.

“I am completely innocent of all these allegations… I am a homosexual. I am not a murderer. I am not a paedophile or pederast.

Harvey Proctor in 2015

He’s speaking at a press conference in 2015, pleading for his reputation and his freedom. 

He would say, I think – in fact, I know – that he was effectively pleading for his life. 

He’d been caught up in a huge and deadly-serious police investigation called Operation Midland, and he was being accused of really terrible things. 

I hadn’t met him when he gave that press conference, so I was looking for clues about him. And there were plenty, even in that short clip. 

He was precise, with a deliberately old-fashioned way about him. And in front of the lectern at that presser he was trying desperately to hold it all together.

I was struck at the time that he said homosexual, not gay. But now I know he never says gay if he can avoid it.

And who – I thought – who says “pederast” these days?

But the main thing was that the press conference where Harvey Proctor spoke those words was one of the most amazing, riveting performances I’ve ever seen. 

And it was absolutely the culmination of a lifetime of experiences. 

He’s lived his life as a gay man while the wheels of social change have been turning. But, more than anyone else I can think of, he’s got caught up in the machinery.

His story is a sort of bruising, battering account of how the media, the police and politics have treated gay people in public life. And people with views we think are extreme. In a way, I think it’s a challenge to all of us. 

How did we – I mean me, you, the public, the press, the police – end up, collectively, forcing this uneasy, reserved character to hold that press conference, and lay everything bare in the hope of rescuing himself?

What had he done – and what had we done – to get to that moment?

I’m Ceri Thomas. And this is Episode 1 of Pariah, from Tortoise Studios.

***

We need to do some introductions. Let me start with Harvey Proctor. 

If you’re under 40, or maybe 50, you might not have heard of Harvey Proctor, but if you’re my kind of age, you’ll remember him all right.

“There were boos and hisses from the conference floor as right-wing MP Harvey Proctor made his way to the rostrum…”

News clip from the 1980s

He was famous – actually, notorious is the right word – as a right-wing Conservative MP in the 1980s. 

And he was big. He was a big thing. He was high profile and controversial. He wasn’t quite Nigel Farage-big, but something like that. Sort of inescapable. 

You had to be there, really. The 1980s, when Harvey Proctor was in his prime, were such a particular moment.

“British workers go in fear of union power…”

Margaret Thatcher, then prime minister, in a montage of news clips from the 1980s

Even looking back from these dark times they were such dark times. And the mood felt so nasty. 

Harvey Proctor fed it. 

“Conference has voted to debate an anti-immigration, far-right repatriation motion…”

“The trouble is, that since 1970, over half a million immigrants have come here from the new Commonwealth, and very little genuine assistance has been given to those immigrants who genuinely want to go home…”

“I believe it to be in the best interest of Black and white alike to say enough is enough.”

Montage of news clips from the 80s relating to immigration, the National Front and Harvey Proctor

It was a hard time to shine if you were cast, or cast yourself, as the country’s lead pantomime villain. There were so many strong contenders for the top role. But Harvey Proctor pulled it off. 

I knew him, just in the way that everyone knew him – from the telly. And if you’d asked me at the time, I’m absolutely sure I would have said I hated him. Not in a thought-through or deliberate way – just sort of casually. 

In a way, I suppose, that I thought wouldn’t have any consequences. But that’s really the point of this whole podcast…

So when it all fell to pieces for Harvey Proctor – and I hesitate to say this because it doesn’t reflect well on me – I would have been pleased. 

Not go-down-the-pub-and-have-a-pint pleased, but enough that it would have been a bright spot in a day. 

And a little while after that, he vanished. From my life and everyone else’s. And for 25 years or so, we never gave him a moment’s thought.

There’s a reason I didn’t put a spoiler alert ahead of all that, and it’s because the bare bones of Harvey Proctor’s life don’t tell you all that much. We’ll come back to all of it – the whole of his life – but it’s not the only interesting thing here. It’s not even the most interesting thing, for me. 

Because whatever relationship we (and I mean the public) had with Harvey Proctor way back when he was a public figure and an MP – we broke up with him. And in classic break-up style, I want to say to him now: “it’s not you Harvey, it’s us”. 

Of course, like everyone who ever said that, I think it’s a bit him, too. But definitely us. It’s what we’re willing to do to people we decide we hate – casually, like I did – that I find fascinating. It’s the harm we’re prepared to do to them. It’s all there in the life of Harvey Proctor.

Ceri: I guess, Al, you have got the advantage over me in that you’ve been here before. So tell me what to expect. 

Alistair Jackson: Well, you’ll see that where Harvey lives is on the estate of the Duke of Rutland… 

That’s my old friend and colleague Alistair Jackson. Al and I are going to do this story together because we’ve been working on this, or something similar, ever since we met on the BBC’s investigative programme Panorama

Ceri: Al, I think you’d been there for a few years before I turned up in 2014, hadn’t you?

Al: Yeah, I’d been there for quite a while. And I think you’d not been there very long, just newly joined as the editor, hadn’t you?

Ceri: That’s right. And we’d started on this report into Operation Midland, which I mentioned. And obviously looking back now, there are lots of people from Operation Midland who we could be making this podcast about now. But we decided to make it about Harvey Proctor. For you, why is it his story the one that’s stayed with you?

Al: I think because there was something different about Harvey Proctor. The others you could see, arguably, why they were drawn into it. They were establishment figures. But for Harvey Proctor, for me, it always seemed there was something about him, about something about the way he was put together that had made him a target. And you know, I’m not sure either you or I ever really answered that question making the programme. And we’ve not really answered it since. You know, what is it about Harvey Proctor that got him into this?

Anyway so there we were, me and Al, in the BBC, fascinated by this story and like every other journalist who was on the case, we had to go back to the start, we had to remind ourselves, who was Harvey Proctor?

Over the past year, Al and I have spent hours talking to Harvey Proctor, going over everything. Al’s talked to him on his own, so have I. And the clips you’ll hear in this podcast are a combination of our interviews, as each time we’ve tried to get closer and closer – as much as we can – to the real Harvey Proctor. Now it’s March 2021 and we’re going to see him together…

Al: So the cottage he’s in is overlooked by the castles…

He lives just outside Grantham. It’s only famous for being the town where Margaret Thatcher was born, and for being voted the most boring town in England. Twice. 

You go off the main road, through a couple of villages, and then you have to look for an unmarked farm track. About half a mile down there – literally, I mean literally in the middle of the fields – is Harvey Proctor’s cottage. It’s hard enough to find it on purpose. You’d never come across it by accident.

And then you look up. And up on a hill, looming over everything below, is the huge gothic silhouette of Belvoir Castle. It’s quite a spot.

Ceri: … this used to be your patch and it’s over there or over there… so Belvoir Castle’s over on our right..

Al: So that I think…

Ceri: … on the left there’s some huge piles as well, I don’t know…

Al: It was my patch a long time ago… 

You get some slightly strange instructions before you arrive. Don’t wear black. The dogs will think you’re a photographer and they don’t like photographers…

[CLIP: Dog barking]

But Harvey Proctor himself? Well Harvey’s very welcoming. 

Harvey: I was born in Pontefract, lived in Leeds, Rippon, York, and then to Scarborough and then back to York to university. 

It was a wondrous childhood. My parents were master bakers. We had two bakery shops in York and a van-round to go around the villages in the proximity to York. It was a wonderful warm atmosphere, warm in an emotional sense, but warm in a physical sense too, because there was a bakery there and, and the ovens and the making of bread… you can’t get more basic than seeing bread made every, every day.

And I say, looking out from my parents’ shop window, seeing girls on bicycles, going in the morning up to Terry’s chocolate factory, and then at lunchtime, because they had a lunch break, coming back. Hundreds of them on bicycles, all with headscarves, flapping backwards in the breeze – something impressed on my life about that. 

We’re not going to dwell too much on Harvey Proctor’s childhood. I don’t think he does, particularly. But there are just a couple of parts of it which feel quite important. 

One is that image he’s describing of York in the 1950s. It feels like something which tips from being a nice memory to a kind of idyll. It’s like an idea of England. A sort of watercolour of a way of life which was beginning to be washed away, even when Harvey Proctor was living in it. 

Ceri: Is there something about that period in York that seems to you as a sort of idyll, you know, I read it as a sort of an English idyll. Is it, is that how you think about it? 

Havey: Yes, it was an idyllic English children’s way of life. I think at that time…

Ceri: One that’s gone, do you think?

Harvey: Yes. There were no threats. So you could go out and play and play with other children. Play football in the winter and cricket in the summer on a big, um, stretch of grass, um, near where the schools were that I went to and then I could walk home – and I might’ve been six or seven.

Nobody was worried about the fact that I wouldn’t get home. Now you can’t do that. It’s impossible. 

And when I’m painting that watercolour of Harvey Proctor’s childhood in my mind, I can tell you one thing about it: there are no Black faces in it. This glowing, warm moment in his life is definitely before immigration begins to change the UK. And I think, maybe, that’s important.

And the other thing is it’s not all warm and glowing either…

Harvey: Yes it was a Friday, a Thursday or a Friday. I had gone to bed because I had school the next day – so I think it was a Thursday – and my mother came in late and woke me up and said your father’s not come home.

He’s a teenager now. And the family has moved from York up the coast to Scarborough… 

Harvey: I remember being in pyjamas, but I put on an overcoat. Mother didn’t drive. So we were walking, but she and I walked the streets of Scarborough to try and find my father, thinking that the only reason he could not have come home was that he was ill or laying in a gutter or somewhere and we’d come across him.

And of course we didn’t, it was about one o’clock in the morning. And we were stopped by a police car who wanted to know what we were doing, walking the streets of Scarborough. So we told them and they checked the hospitals and, and that sort of thing. And I think we didn’t know for sure until the following afternoon or evening, uh, that, that, uh, that he’d gone and wasn’t coming back.

His father was fine. He’d just run off with someone else. Unforgivable to Harvey Proctor – and unforgiven. 

Harvey: I didn’t speak to my father after that. My brother and my mother went to his funeral but I didn’t. 

Ceri: And if you had that time again, would you go now or would you still not go?

Harvey: Looking back on it? Perhaps I should have done, but if I was back there in all of the circumstances that I had had at that time, then I wouldn’t have done anything different. 

Growing up, he paints himself as not lonely but definitely not part of a gang. And aware enough that he wanted a social life to go looking for one. I guess there weren’t an awful lot of places to look in Scarborough sixty years ago, but political parties were one…

Ceri: And the way you describe your choice of political party is almost as if it was arbitrary. That actually you, you thought you were probably not a Labour voter, you were probably not a Lib Dem and therefore, by a process of elimination, I’m kind of a Tory?

Harvey: Yes. It was a process of elimination. It wasn’t that I thought I was, um, a dedicated, traditional conservative. My actual political views developed, particularly when I was at university.

But when I was in the Young Conservatives, it was a process of elimination. I knew that I wasn’t likely to be a Labour Party member because they seemed to want central control. Central control of people’s lives by government. Well, I was much more, um, a freedom of individual sort of chap. Now you might think that that would push you towards the Liberal Party, as it was then called, but no, because even in those days, I looked at what they were saying at different times and realised that they were saying different things in different parts of the country to get elected, rather than seem to have any principles to whatever they were saying on any particular date. So that wasn’t for me. So although the Conservative Party didn’t seem to me to be perfect, um, it seemed to be the only thing that was left.

Harvey Proctor wrote a book about his life a few years ago. It’s obviously a useful thing to read when you’re making a podcast like this and, in a way, I’d say it’s remarkable. 

It’s remarkable – and I don’t say this to be mean or particularly critical – for the lack of insight that Harvey Proctor seems to me to have into himself. It’s so glaring that you don’t always believe what he’s saying. But on this – on why he joined the Young Conservatives – I do believe him. He was going to get some hard-line political convictions, and he was going to get them with a vengeance when he did, but not just yet.

But there was something I struggled to believe in his book. There’s no mention of teenage crushes: not a word about being attracted to someone or even the kind of person he might have been attracted to, until he’s twenty-something…

Ceri: You don’t even mention sexuality until you get to university in your book, and it must have occurred to you before then.

Harvey: Well, there’s a very good reason for that. Um, I did not have sex with anyone… 

Ceri: But you…

Harvey: …including myself until I was 23. So I’m not going to invent past feelings or views about sex, which weren’t there and can’t have been there because it wasn’t in my nature to do anything like that until I was 23. Now you may say why? I don’t know why, but it’s a fact. 

Ceri: Yeah. It’s unusual. 

Harvey: From what I hear, and when I talk to people, when I do have those sort of conversations, which is not very often, it… I’m told, I now understand it is very rare, even in those days. Remember: no sex education. Remember I was at university when homosexuality was illegal.

Homosexuality only became legal in 1967 and it was quite limited. Over the age of 21. Only one-on-one, only in private, not in front of anybody else, don’t scare the horses etc etc. So it was very, very limited, but all my school life and into my first year of university, homosexuality was illegal.

So I don’t know, maybe you could believe that a person didn’t have sex – “even with himself”– until he was 23. But those reasons don’t really stack up. I’ve never met anyone before who said they didn’t think about sex or sexuality, even their own, because there was no sex education in school. And, yes, homosexuality was illegal. But not with yourself. 

Anyway, let’s go with the story that Harvey Proctor tells us. He’s a late developer. And he’s probably not the first late developer, when he falls in love for the first time at university, to fall in love with the wrong guy.

Harvey: I came to a view, um, that probably the best politician around when I was at university and thereafter, was Enoch Powell.

“In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time, the Black man will have the whip hand over the white man.”

Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood Speech, 1968

That – you might recognise it – is a line from the most incendiary speech on race relations that’s ever been made in this country. A speech which got given a title so we could use it as a shorthand for everything it stood for: The Rivers of Blood speech. Made by Enoch Powell in 1968. 

It made a sort of dark box-office star out of Enoch Powell. Even got him onto the Dick Cavett Show on television in the United States.

“Of course we are not concerned with the increase in the total population from say, 55 to 60 million. We are concerned with the increase in an element of a population which is profoundly different, thinks itself different, is seen as different from the rest.”

Enoch Powell on the Dick Cavett Show

A lot of people have written about their experience of growing up in an ethnic minority community in Britain at that time. How the rhythm of the abuse, and often the violence they suffered, rose and fell around the moments when Enoch Powell stepped onto the stage.

He was like the conductor of a terrible, orchestrated whirlwind which blew through parts of the country when he summoned it up. 

Harvey: He was a brilliant orator, but he also had a brilliant mind. I didn’t necessarily agree with everything he said, but there were things with which I did agree. One was we shouldn’t be a member of the European economic community, and we should seek to come out if we could.

I also thought that since the war we’d allowed into our country unlimited numbers of people. They happened to come from the new Commonwealth and Pakistan. But if the same numbers had come from the rest of the world, I would have been equally concerned – differently concerned, but equally concerned.

But the problems that migrations were facing at that time was a migration from the new Commonwealth and Pakistan. And as a result, I may have been found amongst some people just by holding those views to be racist. I have always regarded myself to be colour blind, not colour prejudiced. And, um, and in terms of my personal life, there has been never an example that anyone could justifiably place at my door for being racially prejudiced – just the reverse. I visited India 26 times, Sri Lanka about a dozen times, I have a love affair with the Indian subcontinent. 

I’m going to bring Al back in here to help me dig into this a bit… 

Ceri: Because I think, Al, this is, this is a really important moment, isn’t it? 

Al: Yeah. I mean, I guess like everyone hearing those words again, you sort of… everyone’s had the consciousness of those words, haven’t they? Enoch Powell equals racism is what we all, what most people would think about that. But I guess what I’m interested to know is about Harvey Proctor’s relationship with him. Did, did he know the, sort of… what he was doing, getting so close to Enoch Powell and backing his views and putting himself next to him?

Was it clear right from that moment that that would make him a campaigner that would be controversial and you’d be taking risks? 

Ceri: I think he was clear from the get go, if only because… So Enoch Powell made that speech in Birmingham on a Saturday afternoon in 1968. And by Monday, I’m pretty sure it was Monday, the then leader of the Tory party, Ted Heath, had sacked him from the Shadow Cabinet because the speech was – even by that Monday – had been seen as too racist to be tolerated by the Tory party. So Powell was out in the political wilderness, cast out for saying something that was just unacceptable. 

Al: So, you know, looking at it now, hearing as you did Harvey Proctor describe Enoch Powell like that, and describe his views, what, what do you think that tells us about Harvey Proctor? 

Ceri: Well, I think what we have to remember… this is a decisive moment in Harvey Proctor’s life and career. It is not a temporary thing. This is, this is a moment that actually dictates how Harvey Proctor is seen and his political views: because he’s so in awe of Enoch Powell, it dictates his political views actually to this day. 

Al: Yeah, I mean, when I found… the chats I’ve had with Harvey Proctor without you, I mean, his name comes up quickly, Enoch Powell. It seems to be very present in Harvey’s life and thinking even now.

Ceri: Yeah. So I think if you championed Enoch Powell back then there wasn’t just a risk that you’d be labelled a racist. It was a near certainty, and it was one you could calculate. And if you were like Harvey Proctor and you went beyond championing – he actually invited Enoch Powell to speak at his university with this like, near riot happening outside – that reputation was going to stick.

So he’d developed a view of immigration which put him outside the political mainstream; which made him toxic. And he was in a hurry.

Harvey: Whereas others might want to be a nuclear scientist or a doctor or a train driver or a bank manager, I wanted to be a member of parliament.

I gave myself ten years from leaving university in 1969. I got in ten years later, almost to the day… almost to the year.

Ten years is the kind of deadline-setting that some young people do which hardly ever works out. But sometimes it does.

Harvey: The 1979 election result in Basildon had the biggest swing to the Conservatives in England and it was over 11 per cent. It was a by-election swing in a general election. 

Ceri: And it, and it became a symbol of Margaret Thatcher’s victory, didn’t it? It was the constituency.

Harvey: It flashed up on the screen… Basildon Tory gain. Now I think there are obviously people in the Conservative Party who didn’t like my support for Enoch Powell, didn’t like my anti-common market views, didn’t like my views on immigration. So I think people tended to say wonderful victory for the Conservatives in Basildon, rather than a wonderful…

Ceri: Unfortunately, that terrible Harvey Proctor has won it.

Harvey: Yes, I think there’s also wishful thinking that I wasn’t there. But you couldn’t expect me having said what I was going to do to my constituents, uh, on behalf of my constituents and what I was going to say in a manifesto, get elected with an 11 per cent swing and then do the precise opposite. Uh, other politicians might do that, but that wasn’t for me.

And so, tall, blonde, wildly controversial, and 32 years old, Harvey Proctor burst onto the scene. And on his appearance, his fellow MP, Matthew Parris, wrote in a book later: “The trouble for Harvey, who is not a Nazi, is that he looked like one.”

“We should close the door completely now on further new commonwealth immigration and that includes dependents, and we should encourage people to go back to the new Commonwealth and Pakistan. That actually would have the overnight effect of reassuring the indigenous community that, in the words of the prime minister, they would not be swamped in their own country.”  

Harvey Proctor, when an MP

So Harvey Proctor was feeling vindicated and emboldened by the people who’d voted for him in Basildon. He wasn’t going to camouflage his views on immigration. He was going to spray them around every chance he got. And every time he did that, he got more famous. More notorious.

Ceri: For a constituency, MP, not a minister, you were a very well known figure in the country. To someone like me – young and impressionable – I would have, you know, I was deeply aware of you and, um, not, I have to say not in a good way. How did you deal with that notoriety? Did you like it at all? Or not?

Harvey: I don’t think you like notoriety. I think it’s just something that you put up with. Are you going to change your political views or principles because of it? No.

Ceri: Did you think it was useful in a way or not?

Harvey: Um, it became extremely unhelpful. And I was, um, deluged from time to time with beer, eggs, milk, uh, and acid was thrown at me. One time or another. But the media’s response was quite different.

Let me give you a classic example. I went to Hull University to speak. Physically I was prevented. I couldn’t get into the hall. There were 100 or 200 demonstrators stopping me getting into the hall to speak. So I returned to the car, got in the car, tried to close the door, back door of the car, but they bent the car door back against its hinges to try to stop the car getting away. That was, obviously, because they wanted to harm me in some way. 

They bounce up and down on the roof. The car went off. And when I got to London, the headlines in the Evening Standard was, um, not Tory MP denied free speech at Hull University. Tory MP runs over five students.

I couldn’t drive. I didn’t learn to drive until I was 50. The car was being driven by the security officers of the university. The media did not comment on that at all.

He’d been cancelled. And if what Harvey Proctor had been stopped from saying was his general view at the time – which is that people who’d come to the UK as immigrants should be encouraged to go back to wherever they’d come from – then not many people are going to shed tears over that, even now. 

It’s not just the demonstrators who’d managed to lock him out of the hall, or the communities who were victims of violence or prejudice at the time; history has judged that argument a loser. 

So it’s an uneasy moment to give Harvey Proctor any credit – but when he mentions acid being thrown at him, I do give him some for a kind of bravery.

It meant I was struck by something else when I talked to him. It’s not really a contradiction – not if you remember the atmosphere and the sort of social constraints of the time – but definitely a contrast. 

Here was this man who was a political radical and a campaigner – not on issues I agreed with or liked – but definitely a radical. 

Except when it came to anything to do with his rights as a gay man. 

To his credit, he says that whenever legislation to do with sexuality came up, he voted on the progressive side of it. But generally, he knew what the conventions were and he knuckled down and got on with them. 

Ceri: You could complain about the fact that as a candidate, as a prospective candidate, as an MP, you had to take a female companion along to do events with you, but you don’t complain about that, that you, you just seem to accept that as the way things were.

Harvey: I think you have to remember things were completely different in the 1970s and 1980s. No other Member of Parliament was in the terminology of the day “out”. Certainly no Conservative Member of Parliament was out. I’m not sure that you could have become a Conservative Member of Parliament if you’d gone to your constituency association and said “ oh, by the way, I’m a homosexual”. I think that that would have, um, meant that you wouldn’t have become a candidate and you wouldn’t have become a Member of Parliament if you were in a winnable constituency.

When I tried to be selected for Basildon, there were 70 or 80 people who also wanted that constituency.

And if it meant playing the then Conservative social game – in inverted commas – of taking a young lady with me to the Selection Committee, so be it. I have to say that the young lady I took with me knew exactly what was afoot. And I subsequently attended her wedding on the Isle of White.

But he didn’t always play the game. Not well and not with the newspapers, anyway…

Harvey: Well, uh, I haven’t talked about this, but, um, in about 1980/81, they picked up on the fact that my then partner and myself had had a row. And we fell out. Which should have been a, an entirely private matter. But they, they publicised that fallout, which had nothing to do with politics, had nothing to do with my constituency work. And was irrelevant.

Ceri: So It was just a way to say that your partner was a man?

Harvey: Yes. And therefore the inference was that I was also homosexual. Now, I wasn’t embarrassed or humiliated, by being accused of being a homosexual, I just didn’t think it had anything to do with the role I was doing as a Member of Parliament and working solidly and full-time for my constituents.

They never asked me, they never asked me, um, at a surgery, uh, what my sexuality was. Only the newspapers did.

It’s disconcerting, sitting in Harvey Proctor’s comfortable, conservative, slightly John Lewis-y front room now and looking back at that time because it starts to feel a bit crazy – and reckless. 

He’s way out there on the high-wire – politically and personally. And when he talked to Al about that period in his life, it sounds like he didn’t have any instinct for self-preservation. 

Harvey: I had homosexual desires, which I met by meeting different people rather than one other person. 

Being a Member of Parliament puts so many stresses on you. You didn’t have very much time. Early mornings to late nights. And so probably I met people that I perhaps should not have met, but I did for a sexual purpose. Everything consensual and everything…

Al: But for money sometimes?

Harvey: And everything legal, as far as I was concerned… 

Al: What would this, be in the sort of common way of talking about it… would these be, um, dreadful phrase,but you know, people might call them rent boys. Would it, were you in those sorts of… is that what this was about?

Harvey: In part, but not wholly. 

Al: So you were paying for the sex at times? 

Harvey: In part, in part. But no different, in a way, to how a a heterosexual man might meet a young lady who they might think might develop into, um, a fuller partnership.

“To begin with, AIDs was just an obscure medical curiosity, a strange illness affecting a handful of homosexuals and drug abusers in American cities. Today, the virus has claimed thousands of lives and threatened millions more.”

News clip

Newspapers were always interested in outing gay men, but they were especially interested in 1986. Because there was a sort of moral panic brewing in the background over the AIDs crisis, and a burst of prejudice to go with it which made this kind of story even more powerful. 

So they were sniffing round it and they were edging closer, and Harvey Proctor was behaving in ways that would be risky even now. There was a storm coming, and he couldn’t even shut the door against it…

Harvey: There was one famous occasion when I was at the House of Commons working late on a Friday, and a journalist and a photographer, uh, knocked on the door, thinking I was home on a Friday night. And my mother opened the door and they said they wanted to speak to me. And she said, I wasn’t in and they didn’t believe her. And they went into the house and searched the house, uh, they searched under the beds and in the wardrobes and in the bathroom, everywhere in the house because they thought I was definitely at home. I wasn’t. And so when I got in, my mother was in quite a state. Uh, we sat down and had some tea and she said, just tell me one thing: they’re doing all these horrible things, like coming into the house, and searching the house. Uh, just tell me one thing – you haven’t murdered anyone, have you?

In spite of everything, I don’t get the impression that Harvey Proctor saw the end coming. But it was brutal.

Harvey: I inadvertently went with a person who was under 21. When the age of consent for homosexual activity was 21. This person told me on the SundayPeople’s hidden tape recording on his body, in my house – I didn’t know about, that I was being recorded – he said that he was over 21. He turned out to be under 21. He was 19. 

This became a huge story. And Al’s has been going back really thoroughly through the press cuttings on this, so I’m going to bring him in again to talk us through what happened. 

Ceri: Let’s just go through what Harvey said there, because some of it just needs a bit of explanation. So he mentioned a hidden tape recording and that the Sunday People sent an underage person, underage man, to entrap him. 

Al: Yeah. I mean, I obviously started being through the cuttings. It’s actually quite hard to work out how this all came about.

I mean, from what Harvey Proctor told us there, he’d clearly admitted to paying for sex on occasions. And I think what it looks like is some of those people went to the papers and then they mounted an operation to, as tabloids would call it, sting him. And when you read the, the cutting, and this is the article that first splashed it, when you read the article, it’s actually quite hard to work out what he’s being accused of. Because there’s no mention of the age thing that I can see in these articles. It’s just that they’ve stung him. They’ve caught him. 

Ceri: He was basically accused of being gay, wasn’t he?

Al: Looking at the coverage that’s what they seem to be accusing him of. 

Ceri: And AI, give us a flavour because presumably they have a field day with this?

Al: Yeah, I mean, it says here: “From the moment People investigators confronted Harvey Proctor, the shamed MP knew his kinky game was up. We had evidence of rent boys. We had photographs he loved to take of…” – I mean, this is an interesting aspect of the coverage – “the bloody cuts and welts, his sadistic beatings caused.” So, if anything, they’re saying he’s a violent man.

Harvey tells us in his interview this was all consensual stuff in the privacy of his own home. But looking through the coverage, it’s “we’ve stung you, you’re a gay man, you’re hiring people to have sex and the sex is violent and rough.” And because of the climate of the times, you know, that was really enough to end it too.

You know, they’d got their man hadn’t they? They didn’t need to accuse him of criminality or anything really. 

Ceri: And, and you can see from all the pages you’ve got in front of you, they’re like massively, hideously embarrassing for Harvey Proctor. 

Al: I mean look at it: “Disgrace… why we had to expose this man”. Uh, they describe having sordid photographs taken. I mean, every paragraph is, is vicious. It has to be said. 

Ceri: So it looks on the face of it a pretty clear case of entrapment. Was there much pushback against the way that the People went about this? 

Al: I mean, it’s the People that start this… every other paper piles in, so there was no, you know, it seems to me that from tabloid land, this was a great scoop. I don’t think there was the debate about “is this right or wrong in terms of journalistic behaviour?” Looking at it now, you think, well, he was entrapped and would that… one of two things… would that be a story now? Outing somebody? And would it be allowable, post-Leveson and everything else, to entrap somebody like that? Probably… what do you…. probably no, on both counts? 

Ceri: No, on both counts…

Al: Sorry, Ceri. It’s probably also worth saying, talking to police contacts of mine, I mean, they looked at the file in the more recent atmosphere of things, and, you know, their view is clear that this would be marginal then as a criminal offense. And now certainly not. 

But a sign of its times because the pressure it put the police under – a big expose against the public figure – tabloids had a lot of influence, and the pressure came down on the police to look at it. I think that’s probably the way you can, what you can take from these headlines.

Ceri: Yeah. And I wonder actually, if there’s something really interesting there, because there’s this theme that we’re going to come back to with Harvey Proctor, which is an awful lot of people still think he’s a wrong’un. 

Al: Yeah. And you know, we’ve talked about his political views, but this, this surely, I mean, these headlines you’ve got in front of you… “Disgrace”…. “Spanking MP’s Shame”…

I mean, can you move on from that in terms of reputation, how people remember you? Probably not. Are people bothered about how that story was obtained? Probably not. It was published and that’s probably what it shakes down to, isn’t it?

Harvey Proctor knew the game was up. But he wasn’t allowed to stop. There was a general election coming up and the Tory party didn’t want him to resign and cause a by-election. The agony dragged on and on.

Harvey: I think at the time, the only person who had more adverse publicity, in those months, was Princess Diana.

I was on page one, two and three of all the Sunday newspapers for six weeks running. And that is immensely, uh, onerous and burdensome, um, on your character.

Ceri: Yeah. It must be a regret that they won in the end?

Harvey: Yes. Because all my life, I wanted to be a Member of Parliament and I thought I was doing a good job for my constituents and looking at the election results subsequently… Um, there is absolutely no reason why I would not still have been a Member of Parliament now. What that’s… 33, 34 years later? So that is a regret that I was not able to continue serving the public in a way that I thought I was helpful to my constituents but which I also enjoyed.

By this point, as Al mentioned earlier, the police had decided to press charges against Harvey Proctor for gross indecency. A police officer who went on to be very senior, told us they might normally have decided not to – but the pressure they were under from the endless campaign in the tabloid papers must have weighed on their minds – and that’s a theme we’ll come back to again and again. 

It meant, even after he’d got used to the idea that he wasn’t going to be an MP any more, Harvey Proctor still had another huge decision to take.

In the next episode of Pariah, was he going to plead guilty, or was he going to fight?

Pariah is produced by Hannah Varrall. The sound design is by Karla Patella. It’s written by me, Ceri Thomas, and by Alistair Jackson. 

Next in this file

To suffer one shattering public scandal in a lifetime is hard enough. Harvey Proctor has endured two. In the second episode of Pariah, one of the highest profile police investigations of the past decade – Operation Midland – comes knocking on his door

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