Greek chorus gathers over tragedy in Godalming

8th September 1995 at 01:00
So heads roll, but who is to blame? The shocking outbreak of heterosexual behaviour at one of Britain's most prestigious public schools have, as usual, tempted swarms of armchair moralists out of the closet.

Generally, Peter Hobson of Charterhouse has received far more sympathy from the pens of both the tabloid and the broadsheet hacks than any indiscreet Tory MP could reasonably expect. In the case of Mr Hobson and the teenage call girl, most papers took their cue from Harry Foot, Charterhouse's bursar, who called the affair "a human tragedy".

He was echoed by playwright and old Carthusian Sir Ronald Millar, whose unworldly and plaintive reaction was widely quoted, despite the fact that he is hardly a household name: "Prostitutes? In Godalming? I can't believe it. It only happened in Greek plays."

But these efforts to lend an Olympian grandeur to the story were rather undermined by poor Mr Hobson's frankly bathetic response when he was told that the press had discovered his indiscretion: "I'm gobsmacked", he said. One stylistically-correct reader of the Daily Telegraph took exception to this: "If the headmaster of Charterhouse really did use the expression 'I'm gobsmacked', then his resignation is justified. He should not be allowed anywhere near an educational institution."

Sally Henderson, the middle-class prostitute with a heart of brass, has been cast by most journalists as the villain of the piece. The Sun was particularly tickled by the fact that she is a product of the public school system herself and a member of Mensa, while the Express carried a tearful "where-did-we-go-wrong?" piece by her parents - "Man-eater Sally, aged 16 but far from sweet".

Meanwhile, over at The Times, William Rees-Mogg started out by accusing Sally of betraying her Establishment roots, nostalgically recalling the days when thediscretion of prostitutes could be relied on.

But by the end of his column he plays safe and blames the tabloid press in general and the Daily Mirror in particular.

Not one writer paused to consider that Ms Henderson is only 19 (compared to Mr Hobson's 50) and may be drowning rather than waving, having waded in right out of her depth.

The Guardian, with an eye on its readership, preferred to concentrate on the issue of headteacher stress and the effects of the recession on the private sector, while the Telegraph followed up the next day in a similar vein, quoting Roy Chapman, head of Malvern College.

"People talk about the football-manager syndrome - if a school is not doing well, it must be the head's fault, so out with the head."

Last year Mr Chapman, as chairman of the Headmasters' Conference, said that independent schools were ideally placed to fill Britain's "gaping moral vacuum". According to The Times, he is standing by these sentiments.

Peter Kilfoyle, the Labour education spokesman, surely deserves a plaudit for timing. He confirmed Labour's intention to abolish the assisted places scheme on September 1, the day before the Sun and the Mirror splashed the Charterhouse vice scandal on the front pages.

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