There’s a meme around in New Zealand media and blogs, that politicians’ private lives should be private. They are out of bounds, not up for discussion in the media (widely construed, including blogs).
I certainly don’t think that every aspect of a politician’s private life should be up for public inspection. In fact, very little of a politician’s life should be fair game for public discussion. But where a politician’s private life intersects with his or her public life, then I think it’s worthy of public discussion.
So, for example, if a Prime Minister has an affair, then, well, it’s not really public business. The only people who should be concerned about it are the PM, his or her lover, and his or her spouse. However, if that PM has an affair with, for example, his speech writer, then given the extent to which the speech writer can affect public policy, then the affair might be a matter for public discussion.
Another example – if a Leader of the Opposition has an affair, then, well, it’s not really public business. The only people who should be concerned about it are the Leader of the Opposition, his or her lover, and his or her spouse. However, if the Leader of the Opposition has an affair with, for example, a member of a major lobby group, then given the extent to which the lobby group might fund the opposition, or might influence public discussion, then the affair might be a matter for public discussion.
You can see where I am going with this, no doubt. In each case, the charge is not having an affair, but having an affair with someone who might thereby have undue influence on the politician’s public business.
And even then, it still a matter of judgement as to whether the possible influence is sufficiently serious that the affair should be revealed, and the politician held to account for it.
Bear with me while I go through another set of examples where politicians’ private lives might be a matter for public discussion.
If a politician has an affair, and at the same time comments, negatively, on the state of other politicians’ marriages, then that’s a matter for public discussion. If a politician has what could reasonably be described as deviant, or at least very unusual, sexual practices, and at the same time holds him or herself out as a family person, upholding family values, then that’s a matter for public discussion. But the matter that’s up for public discussion is hypocrisy, not the actual affair or sexual practices. I don’t give a damn whether you have sex with one, two, three or more people at one time, of the same or different genders, whether you dress up in a maid’s dress or leathers, whether you happily have casual sexual encounters with any woman or man who offers (‘though I would like to know where you find the energy to do it). All with the gold standard consenting adults caveat, of course. I just don’t want to know, or even speculate about what you get up to in your private time, and in your private relationships. I’m not interested in the prurient details, and I have no respect for people who go around digging them out.
However I do give a damn if you say one thing in public, and do something else in private, especially if you hold yourself out to the electorate as a person who believes in marriage, and upholds “family values”, whatever those might be.
Given this, I think that our media has taken the easy route by buying into the “politicians’ private lives are totally private” meme. It means that they don’t have to make judgements about whether a particular aspect of a particular politician’s private life is in fact a public matter. No need to worry the public with details about whether or not a certain MP is being hypocritical – it’s a private matter. No need to try to make a judgement – just follow the rule, and don’t even try to think about the issues.
I want to see the New Zealand media exercising a little more judgement with respect to politicians’ private lives. I have no problem with journalists erring on the side of caution – there’s no need to open a Pandora’s box of impossible standards and prurience here. However the media are an important part of the checks and balances through which we restrain the powerful, and in this respect at least, they are letting the powerful get away with unethical behaviour.
Of course, a journalist who exposes too much about politicians’ private lives will soon lose access to the corridors of power. So there would be some constraints on journos who step over the line, and report far too much about what an MP has been doing.
Just to be sure I am being clear about where I stand on this, notice that I have used “unethical” rather than “immoral” – it’s undue influence and hypocrisy that concern me, not tawdry details about who is sleeping with who, and what they are doing there. And we need our media to expose undue influence and hypocrisy, not hide behind a handy little heuristic.