Surveillance culture is the enemy of bizarre love triangles

The extension of information obsession to the field of intimacy ruins the mystery, poetry and suspense

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie arrive at the Old Bailey courthouse in London last Friday. Photograph: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

Former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks and her husband Charlie arrive at the Old Bailey courthouse in London last Friday. Photograph: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth


I asked Mike Nichols, the director of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal on Broadway, why love triangles have such a mythic hold on the imagination. “We’re born in a triangle,” he said about parents and a newborn. “That’s the most important one, the triangle that determines who we are, the one that affects the other triangles that you get into in your life.”

The affair in Betrayal takes place from 1968 to 1975, but it feels like a quaint, distant world. Robert, a publisher, discovers his wife, Emma, is having an affair with his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent, when he recognises Jerry’s writing on a letter addressed to her at the American Express office in Venice.

But maybe that world isn’t so quaint. The first bombshell out of the London phone-hacking trial of flame-haired Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, a fellow editor who went on to be a spin doctor for David Cameron, is about a six-year affair prosecutors say was conducted by these two top lieutenants of Rupert Murdoch. (The prosecution contends that the affair began when both were single – although Brooks was engaged to the man who would be her first husband – and continued after they both got married.)

Their illicit relationship, too, was exposed by a letter, this one found on a Word document on Brooks’ computer and discovered by investigators in a cupboard in her London home. Prosecutor Andrew Edis read jurors part of the letter on Thursday to underscore the trusting relationship between the pair when they were editors at Murdoch tabloids, The Sun and The News of the World.

The relationship supposedly took place between 1998 and 2004, overlapping the period when the lovers are charged with engaging in a criminal conspiracy to hack the phones of celebrities, royalty and even that of an abducted and murdered teenage girl, which cruelly left her parents with the impression she might still be alive.

The prosecutor said the letter appeared to show a distraught-stricken Brooks trying to talk Coulson out of breaking off the affair.

“Most important,” Brooks wrote, “the fact is you are my very best friend, I tell you everything, I confide in you, I seek your advice, I love you, care about you, worry about you, we laugh and cry together. In fact, without our relationship in my life I’m not sure I will cope.” She continued: “The thought of finding out anything about you from someone else fills me with absolute dread.”

Media exposure
Tabloid editors charged with breaking the law to expose people’s most intimate secrets are now having their most intimate secrets exposed in a court of law. They didn’t just betray their mates, but fellow A-listers. They managed to have an old-fashioned private fling for years while they were using new technology to splash into print the torrid affairs of other bold-faced British names.

Instead of the “pip pip pips” Pinter writes about, the coins dropping into a phone booth for a “crafty telephone call” to make an excuse about coming home late, they had the pip pip pips of punching digits into older mobile phones to hack unsuspecting victims.

Daniel Craig, who plays Robert in Betrayal, says the play is set in a misty time when discretion still existed, a time he thinks was sexier.

“It’s impossible to feel sexy when you’re spied on,” he said in a critique of the out-of-control government-technological complex of spying that has chilled American-European relations. Noting that “it’s generational”, he told me when he expresses his dismay to his 20-year-old daughter and other kids about it, they’re “kind of, whatever”.

“The fact that people send Instagrams and immediately upload a photograph of themselves doing something embarrassing that is going to be on the internet, it just brings me out in hives.”

Calling Big Brother technology a “complete anti-aphrodisiac”, he thinks iPads should be banned from the bedroom “unless you’re both watching porn on the internet”.

In the pre-smartphone universe of Betrayal, Jerry and Emma can set up a love nest for years without anyone in their smart literary set finding out. “I mean the crockery and the curtains and the bedspread and everything,” Emma says to Jerry at their final meeting at their hideaway. “And the tablecloth I brought from Venice. It’s ridiculous. It’s just . . . an empty home.”

Digital erotics
Instead of a second address, modern philanderers are more likely to have a second phone. Love nests seem archaic, given how physical erotics have been displaced by digital erotics.

We virtually have another NSA, the National Sex Agency, given all the desire surveillance technology and the manic collection of preliminary information about conceivable partners.

The extension of information obsession to the field of intimacy – which is the slow revelation of one person to another – ruins the mystery, poetry and suspense. Instead of caressing, there’s posting; instead of kissing, there’s forwarding, sharing and sending.

A love nest also figures prominently in the new memoir Johnny Carson, by the comedian’s old lawyer and carousing buddy, Henry Bushkin. The Bombastic Bushkin, as he became known in Johnny’s monologues, first meets Carson in 1970, when he joins a stealthy team breaking into the East Side “snuggery” of the star’s second wife, Joanne.

After Carson, wearing a .38 revolver on his hip, got into the apartment, thanks to a bribe, he discovered scattered lingerie and other “evidence of his cuckoldry,” as Bushkin wrote. “The whole living room, in fact, almost the entire pad – was furnished with discards from the couple’s UN Plaza apartment.”

“There were even some pieces Johnny hadn’t realised were gone.” Carson confirmed the identity of Joanne’s “Prince Charming” in the most low-tech way possible: There were six or seven framed photographs of sportscaster and former New York Giants star Frank Gifford. Even though he was constantly unfaithful himself, Carson “leaned against the living room wall and began to weep”.

Joan Bakewell, the 80-year-old former BBC presenter who had the seven-year “Swinging Sixties” affair with Pinter that inspired Betrayal, wonders how people can secretly frolic anymore.

“Absolutely, you couldn’t do it today,” she said, flummoxed about how affairs work when you’re pestered with mobile calls and emails with “spouses and partners asking: ‘Where are you?’ You know, it’s impossible. I don’t know how they manage it.”

– (New York Times service)

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