Adivorced MP, now a minister, once met a woman through a website who turned out to be a dominatrix sex worker. He instantly dropped her. This may interest the public, but is it a matter of “public interest”? Is there a public interest in how the prime minister legally stored his savings before coming to power, or how the chancellor makes his tax-paying efficient? Does the public have an “interest” in what all politicians once said, drank, smoked or snorted, or what they got up to with their lovers or stockbrokers?
This has been a big week for press ethics, largely because certain editors chose to honour them. They did not cover the John Whittingdale story, clearly regarding it as irrelevant to the man’s public office. It was the BBC that broke it. Yet the editors are accused of hypocrisy for suppressing the story, supposedly for fear ofWhittingdale’s new regulators. As for Whittingdale, he is accused of hypocrisy for going soft on his regulators for fear of the disclosure. Even the lobbyists of Hacked Off are supposedly hypocrites, for demanding the press intrude on Whittingdale’s privacy to prove it does not fear him. This is the ethics of a madhouse.
Personal privacy is perpetually at war with a public craving for transparency. Both have good tunes. But the outcome of ever greater transparency must be that satirised by Dave Eggers’ in his novel, The Circle. It depicts a Silicon Valley corporation inventing a body package that wires subscribers with mics and cameras and allows their every waking minute to appear in real time to millions of followers. Only in the loo and in bed can it be turned off. All elected public figures are pressured to “go transparent”, for fear of having “something to hide”. The book ends in nightmare scenarios of zombie politicians and lynch mobs hunting down transgressors.
Intruding on the privacy of politicians has long been the raw material for that standby of political attack dogs, hypocrisy. Like accusations of “poor handling” and “adverse perception”, hypocrisy is the default mode of political criticism for those who find public affairs boring. The American academic Judith Shklar wrote that “it is easier to dispose of an opponent’s character by exposing his hypocrisy than to show his political convictions are wrong”. This is especially so if hypocrisy relates to money or sex.
Cambridge University’s David Runciman has similarly played down the evil of political hypocrisy in his book of that title. All politicians lie, he points out. They promise what they know is undeliverable, and treat compromise as the price of office. Liberal democracy, he says, requires “dissimulation and pretence … a consistency one cannot sustain, a loyalty one does not possess”. Hypocrisy is the homage paid by vice to virtue. AsTS Eliot said, mankind cannot stand too much reality.
The idea that the sole qualification for public office should be a past and present life so blameless as to withstand Eggers-style scrutiny is absurd. The journalistic cliche states: “If he can’t be trusted by his own spouse, or trusted with his own money, how can we trust him in government?” We might ask the same of all people in positions of responsibility. We could cite Walpole, Palmerston, Lloyd George and Churchill to wonder at what transparency would have inflicted on British history down the ages.
If we drive politicians down the road to ever greater disclosure, how can we resist the demands of the home secretary, Theresa May, that her security mafia intrude ever further into our private lives? Such assaults on privacy are now systematic and all-consuming. From the advance of state surveillance to the barrage of social media, there seems no coherent concept of personal space. It is all too easy to say that the horrors of trolling and Facebook can be avoided by “switching off”. But for millions of people these have become part of daily life.
I am sure that the next wave of digital innovation will be a reaction to this assault on our sense of the self. It will be in erecting walls, closing windows, reinforcing private zones. It will be the digital version of the first great retreat into privacy, when families abandoned the medieval hall for the discreet bedchamber.
For once it appears that the mainstream press – unlike the social media – have this week applied some ideal proportionality. It felt Whittingdale merited some discretion in a past embarrassment. It did not confuse public interest with a prurient interest by the public. Nor is it hypocritical of Whittingdale to hold to his reported view that privacy protection needs no more state intervention, least of all Leveson’s proposal of regulation through a punitive burden of costs.
There will never be a precise boundary between privacy and disclosure in the public realm. Those who live in a blaze of light risk being seen in the round. One thing they can avoid is playing the media’s own game. Cameron’s capitulation to hysteria in half-opening his tax return sets a bad precedent. Everyone seeks allowable tax avoidance. Any politician’s personal circumstances can be portrayed by enemies as implying bias. Just because he “handled it badly”, Cameron should not have set what promises to be a serious intrusion into personal privacy, possibly stretching beyond politics.
Like the prominence of “character” in the American presidency, background can obscure foreground. The risk in a politician is not hypocrisy but incompetence. The fact that so few ministers have ever run anything before is far more dangerous to the state than financial or sexual misdemeanour. Cameron’s favouritism to friends and donors in public appointments is far more corrupting than his past moralising about tax avoidance. His mendacity on localism matters far more to the state of the nation than some minister hypocritically protesting against a library closure.
The real challenge, says Runciman, is to monitor the real pressures that influence public policy, to decide “what sort of hypocrites we want our politicians to be”. Being a successful minister – let alone a consistent one – is hard. Politicians would do themselves a service by bolstering the checks and balances of cabinet, Whitehall and parliament. They should make proper scrutiny work. Otherwise they cannot complain when a lazy media scrutinises something else instead.