Devil’s Advocate: Should Politicians’ Private Lives Stay Private?

Yes – Laura Beveridge- 53%

During the first presidential debate of 2020, in amongst the incessant interruptions and the incoherent stringing together of Fox News’ favourite buzzwords, Trump attempted to weaponize the personal struggles of his opponent’s son, Hunter Biden, to use against the former Vice President. The world watched as the President of the United States attacked Joe Biden on the grounds of his son’s personal battle with drug addiction in an attempt to bolster his own vote share.

During the second debate, Trump once again pushed this now familiar line of attack. This time regarding Hunter Biden’s foreign business ties. The origins of the renewed attacks found their basis in claims (allegedly unfounded) about the discovery of emails made by Trump’s lawyer and Borat victim, Rudy Giuliani. As The Independent notes, even if the emails are legitimate, they don’t necessarily have any connection to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, his ability to govern, or his character. Biden’s son has become a campaign issue, yet Joe Biden’s son is not running for president.

Thus in 2020, once again, the actions and behaviour of private individuals related to politicians (that have no bearing on the sphere of politics) are being used in ad hominem attacks and as partisan political fodder. Yet, we as viewers of the political theatre, find ourselves culpable for this phenomenon as we generate its demand. To satiate our voyeuristic appetite, families of politicians are hounded by media determined to sniff out, or indeed create, a scandal. As a result, individuals like Malia Obama can’t party like every other college student her age without pictures of her being leaked online doing so.

Politicians themselves have their histories trolled through in the similar hope of generating partisan outrage. In an attempt to embarrass Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, a video of her dancing while in college posted on Twitter. It was, of course, a failed attempt, as AOC replied “I hear the GOP thinks women dancing are scandalous. Wait till they find out Congresswomen dance too!”

Combing through a politician and their family’s personal lives in an attempt to generate scandal, whether by their political opponents or by the media, does little but distract and move the conversation away ‒ as it did in the case of the Trump/ Biden debates ‒ from the political discussions that actually matter. Our willingness to be distracted by shock and scandal has turned the sphere of politics into the realm of reality TV and gossip magazines.

There is a lot we can learn from the French: how to get over our cripplingly British squeamishness at displays of romance in public; how to embrace the joie de vivre; but perhaps, most relevant to the topic at hand, is the French attitude towards the separation of judgement between a politician’s private and political life. Academics have noted that in France, there is “a clear boundary between the private and public spheres…maintained in both politicians’ mediated communication and journalists’ coverage of political issues and personalities”. This is well exemplified in the case of French President’s Francois Hollande’s 2014 affair. The affair, which became a salacious sex scandal in British media outlets, garnered little interest from the French public, who were in fact baffled by Britain’s preoccupation with the story, according to The Huffington Post. The French largely held the view that the President’s private life is his own business, whether they agreed with the morality of his conduct or not. French media lacked the voyeuristic sensationalism of the British tabloids: defending Hollande’s right to conduct his private affairs in private. According to general consensus, noted The Huffington Post, as long as Hollande was performing his role of head of state to a satisfactory standard, it didn’t matter what he did in his private life. Unfortunately for Hollande, while he may have been off the hook for his private discretions, many people didn’t find his public performance all that satisfactory either.

But you may not be convinced by the French method. You may still be thinking that a politician’s private life is a matter of public interest! How else are we to judge their character? And of course, there are examples of when such a statement rings true. It is obviously a matter of public interest that must be unveiled if there are grounds for belief that a criminal act may have or has been committed. But generally, it can be argued that we barely even need to actually dig through a politician’s private affairs to discover their true character. Boris Johnson’s elitist statements were submitted by himself to be published in a column in The Spectator; Trump’s dog whistles to white supremacists are made in front of rallies of hundreds.

While I, myself, cannot say that I am wholeheartedly certain that we must adopt a French-like attitude towards politics, nevertheless I must acknowledge that the argument that politicians’ private lives (and the private lives of the families) remaining private could avoid the media hounding of such individuals and the “scandals” that emerge from such. Personally, I couldn’t care less to see David Cameron’s shirtless holiday snaps or that the naughtiest thing Theresa May had done is run through a field of wheat. Perhaps, “being like the French”, would allow media and public discourse to avoid being side-tracked by tangential debates or distracted by matters that have no bearing on what actually matters: the policy, accountability, ability, and political action of those in power.

No – Joe Waters- 47%

I would think it uncontroversial that in any occupation, your fitness for the role is affected by your character. A lawyer, whose role demands unrelenting standards of presentation and commitment, would be ill-fitted for the job if their private lives could be characterised by devastating incompetence. A Police Officer, sworn to uphold standards of integrity and fairness, would fall short of their required standard if, in their private life, they were a swindler, a liar, or a cheat. We as humans don’t shapeshift when we punch in the clock card: our in-work behaviour is an extension of our out-of-work behaviour. If your behaviour is unsuitable to your role outside of the workplace, then it’s hardly going to be much better inside the workplace.

Politicians are no different: if someone in a position of power is a liar, dishonest, or a rule-breaker at home or elsewhere, then are we to expect that they will magically transform into a beacon of good behaviour when on official business? I think not. With politicians, however, the stakes are much higher. Whereas an easy corner-cutting exercise or bouts of laziness might cause a small hindrance down the line in other professions, with politicians such behaviour can, and does, have tangible, devastating effects on the lives of many individuals and whole communities. Similarly, a politician, dishonest in their private life, has unparalleled opportunity to commit wanton corruption whilst in possession of immense responsibility, should that dishonesty (inevitably) transfer into behaviour while in office.

It goes without saying that malignance and incompetence can have a seriously negative impact on people’s lives. So too it goes for the ability to represent people should your private life tarnish your integrity. A politician, specifically Members of Parliament and variants thereof (MSPs, MLAs, AMs, and so on), are to be extensions of their constituents ‒ the vast, vast majority of whom will hardly put a foot wrong in their day-to-day lives. Their role is to be an embodiment and a mouthpiece of and for their worries and concerns. Should their private lives showcase a chasm between their basic values and their constituents, how can their electors genuinely trust them to do right by them? Accordingly, if it comes to light that a representative has committed an act which showcases such a value chasm, their electors have every right to know about it.

One example of this is Keith Vaz. A former MP, in 2016, Vaz was suspended from Parliament for engaging in paid sexual activity, alongside proclaiming a willingness to buy class A drugs. Despite the acts occurring in his private life, Vaz displayed a willingness to break the law. Regardless of your views on the morality of sex work (I’ll dodge that potential minefield) Vaz’s private life arguably demonstrated an unsuitability to the public role of creating and scrutinising the same law that he was willing to break. Likewise, the recent case of Margaret Ferrier highlights this issue further. The question has to be asked: how can an MP faithfully represent constituents through COVID-ian pandemic regulations when they allegedly have shown disregard for those regulations themselves? In any case, the manner in which politicians are given responsibility by the public, necessitates that they be the ones to decide this matter, in full knowledge of the facts, private or otherwise, about the individual they are to choose for high office.

This brings me onto my next point: in any other role, particularly those entailing positions of responsibility, private lives aren’t exactly off-limits. Employers, before, during, and after, selection will undertake often extensive vetting processes. Of course, you’ll be checked for criminal convictions, but so too will your social media will also be investigated, affiliations probed, and so on. We, as an electorate, are the employers of politicians, they gain their responsibility from us as candidate selection is undertaken by us. Why then, would it be unreasonable for candidate vetting also not to be done by us? In the absence of formal vetting akin to that of major employers, the electorate’s only recourse to discover the likes of the Vaz and Ferrier cases ‒ the majorly damning elements of politicians’ private lives ‒ ourselves and make the decision ourselves.

In sum, politicians should not have the right to a private life. However, there is an important distinction between having a right to reasonable privacy and the ability to hide elements of your life that your electors really should know about. In saying that politicians private lives shouldn’t stay private, I’m not arguing for the Parliamentary oath to now contain a complete divulgence of a member’s movements since the day they were born, but rather that it is reasonable – nay imperative – that, if the private actions of politicians bring into question their integrity or ability to effectively perform their representative and legislative role, that such behaviour is not hidden from the electorate’s view. It’s not our place nor right to know the regular private lives of politicians, with the proviso that their actions aren’t reflections on their character such that it shows unsuitability for their job. To put it simply, we shouldn’t have the automatic right to know whether Boris and Keir go to the pub or their beer of choice; but if they were to drive home drunk, after instigating a street-wide royal rumble, then this element of their private life should well become public knowledge.