Prying into public-private lives

The democratic function of the press falters when trivial details about the lives of politicians consume all the resources of our finite attention economy

On more than one occasion, some journalistic scoop or post on social media platforms disclosed incidents in the private lives of politicians that subsequently called into question a minister’s tenure or whether an elected politician should continue to occupy some sensitive position. This further raises the moot question of whether we are somehow entitled to pry into our representatives’ private lives and, if so, when, how and to what extent.

The issue becomes complicated when it becomes hard to clearly distinguish between a politician’s strictly private life and the public one, as they might easily overlap. Mark Camilleri’s revelation of private chats between MP Rosianne Cutajar and Yorgen Fenech that subsequently stirred up a hornet’s nest was a case in point.

Publicly, we have had divergent views carried to both extremes. On the one hand, in March 2021, we had Prime Minister Robert Abela state that politicians must accept being subjected to a high level of scrutiny, including in their private lives. The public is entitled to make holistic judgements, both in terms of their public work and also what happens in their private lives, where certain aspects can reflect on each other. On the other hand, in February 2017, former Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri stated that laws should be enacted to safeguard politicians from uncalled-for intrusions into their private and sexual lives.

The argument goes that politicians’ private lives should generally be off-limits to media scrutiny. Yet, should there not be some notable exceptions? After all, the media has a duty to the public and an obligation under its watchdog role to probe and ask awkward questions, more so in situations of any kind of behaviour that could unduly influence the carrying out of a politician’s public responsibilities, some breach of the government’s policies, or some sort of financial impropriety.

A free press is essential to the functioning of the rule of law, exposing corruption and dishonesty on the part of politicians and businesses. If investigative journalists are prevented from scrutinising the private lives of public figures, then corruption and crime will be much easier to hide. Are we not entitled to question how any public figure can afford an above-average lifestyle that is incongruent with their income?

No clear dividing line can be drawn between public and private behaviour. Drawing up rules will be arbitrary and will exclude at least some corrupt or dishonest behaviour.

Not only that, but many politicians make an explicit or implicit campaign point out of their family values and other aspects of their private lives, for example, through policy stands on such issues as divorce, single mothers, abortion, sex education, and drugs. If the public image such people seek to create is at variance with their own practice, such hypocrisy deserves to be exposed. That would be not just an act of exposing hypocrisy but also revealing a deeper issue of character that is highly problematic for representative democracy. Remember how soon after being elected leader of the PN, Bernard Grech was revealed to have failed to submit his income tax returns for quite some time? Or how Malta had spent the last days of 2018 and the first few days of 2019 discussing the marital troubles of then-PN Opposition leader Adrian Delia and his estranged wife, who accused him of domestic violence as well as cruelty towards their children? In normal circumstances, tax evasion or avoidance and domestic violence are serious enough accusations to merit automatic resignation.

So when it comes to dealing with information about the private lives of politicians and public officials, we can be morally justified in caring about what is done outside of parliament or privately. Individual morality exists across both public and private spheres of decision-making. This notwithstanding, this tension between the claims to the privacy of politicians and public officials and the rights of the public and the media to freedom of information is an undeniably hard one to resolve. It is expected that public interest claims are not left lurking in murky waters, as this might unfairly and unjustly bring about politicians or public officials being pressured to end their political or public careers over a seemingly inconsequential fact about their personal lives.

Instead, content relating to the private lives of politicians needs to be understood in terms of its relevance to their ability to execute their role. We should actively dismiss and avoid searching for details that tell us nothing about their honesty, accountability, competence, integrity, judgement and self-discipline, no matter how salacious. However, the press and social media should feel justified in pursuing information that reveals their historic performance in such areas.

Because the relevance of this information can only be ascertained once it has been made publicly available, there will always be some politicians and other public figures who have their privacy unjustly violated. Additionally, anyone entering a public-facing role knowingly places his or her privacy in a position of vulnerability. If they have something to hide, politics is probably not the place for them.

The democratic function of the press falters when trivial details about the lives of politicians consume all the resources of our finite attention economy. As such, it is a moral imperative for news outlets to maintain strong ethical standards when it comes to their reporting on the private lives of politicians, focusing their coverage on that which is relevant to their ability to bear office.