Private lives and the public interest

Whenever a scandal arises, the same debate is replayed: does the public have a right to know about a politician’s private affairs?

Private lives and the public interest

The hypocrite in our times is not, as of old, the libertine posing as moralist—Tartuffe, or Angelo in Measure for Measure—but moralists posing as libertines. Today we are most keen to advertise not our virtue but our worldly indifference to others’ faults, fearing not that we might be accused of the same so much as that we might be thought of as prigs. Judge not lest ye be judgmental.

This is particularly so when it comes to the political arena. On those not infrequent occasions when a politician is found to have behaved badly in his private life, there is always a crush of apologists racing to the nearest rooftop to shout how little they care. Cheats on his wife? Yawn. Drunk every night? Big deal. Takes hundreds of thousands in cash from fugitive international arms dealers? Doesn’t everyone?

From Adam Giambrone to Maxime Bernier, from Bill Clinton to Brian Mulroney, whenever the issue arises the same debate is replayed. Does the public have a right to know about a politician’s private affairs? How much? How far?

To be sure, some of the people most concerned that we not inquire too closely into politicians’ private lives are those in the business of spinning for politicians, who have as much an interest as their clients in pretending that politicians are honourable, high-minded people, and not at all the sorts who would, say, hire spin doctors.

So, too, there are the bored sophisticates who find the whole subject unspeakably provincial. Politicians, they complain, are being held to an impossible standard, as puritanical as it is archaic. But mostly there is an understandable anxiety that this not be carried too far, that politicians be permitted some sphere of privacy, secure from public disclosure.

To the question, then, of where do you draw the line, they answer that no line need be drawn: that whatever a politician does in his private life is no business of ours, just so long as it does not affect “his ability to do his job.” After all, if this keeps up it will be impossible to get good serial philanderers to go into politics.

And yet I can’t think these people actually mean what they say. In fact, no such neat separation is possible between private and public lives, either in principle or in practice. If a public official were discovered to enjoy robbing banks in his spare time, I doubt anyone would say it was strictly a private matter. In the same way, I can’t help wondering if those who claim to be unmoved that a politician cheats on his wife would feel the same way if someone were to cheat on them.

As a voter, it strikes me that a man who will lie to his wife will lie to me, and the lengths he will go to deceive her is probably a measure of how far he will go to deceive the rest of us. We do not elect a platform when we vote. We elect leaders, and while it might be argued that we could as well be led by frauds and debauchees so long as the facade of decency was preserved, it is not only for their moral example that we elect them. We are also making guesses about how they would react in a given situation, how well they would stand up under pressure, what sorts of choices they would make and why. We are assessing their character and judgment, and for that we need as much information as possible.

Politicians know this, which is why they are in fact quite keen to have us know about their private lives, when it suits their purposes. Hence the Christmas-card photos with the family, the exclusive behind-the-scenes interviews, even the odd teary soliloquy about a personal tragedy. If politicians do not themselves separate their personal and public lives, it’s not clear why the rest of us should.

Is everything fair game, then, no matter how personal? Is it open season on politicians’ private lives, the better to feed a scandal-hungry media? No. We are not required to substitute one extreme for another, as indiscriminate in the latter case as the former. We are required to use some judgment. As it happens, we are not without yardsticks. There are, first, the basic standards of responsible journalism. Is it true? Is it fair? And before all: is it relevant? Is this something the public would find pertinent to taking the measure of this person?

And there are the sorts of rules that restrain the state in similar situations. We should, for example, have “reasonable and probable grounds” before we go asking a prying personal question. When Pamela Wallin famously asked John Turner whether he had a drinking problem, she was not just fishing: the matter was widely rumoured, if not publicly discussed. Likewise, the means by which information is obtained should not be overly invasive. The Toronto Star did not go poking through Giambrone’s garbage to discover the erstwhile mayoral candidate’s public image as a happily “partnered” man was a sham. His jilted lover came to them with the proof.

I know, I know: would anyone have voted for JFK if they’d been told what he was up to? Who knows? That’s up to the public to decide, not the media. Still, it didn’t seem to hurt Clinton. Which suggests standards are not so impossibly high as all that. Personally, the test I apply is this: knowing what I know, would I hire this person to deliver pizza? If they can’t pass that test, I’m not sure they should be prime minister or president.