Sex, spanking, scandal – John Whittingdale’s relationship with a dominatrix hit the headlines last week. So what?
You could be forgiven for thinking that privacy is dead. In an age where people choose to broadcast every little detail of their private lives on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, the idea that some things are best kept to oneself is becoming outdated. Not only that, but the general devaluing of privacy leads to disrespect for the privacy of others. As soon as an individual becomes widely known, members of the public obsess over the minor details of that individual’s life. This is not a new phenomenon, but it does seem to be intensifying in the world of politics. A politician’s merit is judged as much by their private life as it is by their voting record. This is not only deeply disrespectful to the individuals’ affected, but also highly disruptive of the political process.
The latest public scandal over a politician’s private life concerns John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. A woman he was dating, whom he met online, turned out to be a dominatrix. He claims he ended the relationship as soon as he found out about her career. As far as I can see, Mr Whittingdale has done nothing wrong, nothing illegal, and nothing especially relevant to his ministerial role. Initially the press didn’t consider it newsworthy. Then, one after another, The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Daily Express, The Telegraph and Huffington Post UK all ran stories about the incident, causing public embarrassment to a seemingly innocent man. The fact it took them so long suggests that even the news media are getting fed up with political sex scandals.
I’m not questioning the legal right of newspapers to run such stories (as long as they’ve obtained the information in a non-invasive way e.g. no phone-tapping), but I am questioning the morality and usefulness of it. Why publicly shame politicians for their private mistakes? Brian Cathcart, founder of supposedly pro-privacy lobby group Hacked Off, argues that the Whittingdale exposé was in the public interest because it reveals him to be a hypocrite. Cathcart points out that Mr Whittingdale expresses support for traditional marriage and has opposed the liberalisation of sex laws, which doesn’t seem to fit with him dating a female escort. Thus, publicly shaming a politician is justified on the grounds of revealing that politician’s character.
This is an interesting argument. Indeed, we all want our elected officials to be honourable people; we’d rather not be represented in Parliament by someone sleazy or disingenuous (not that Mr Whittingdale appears to fit into either of these categories). What however, is so special about politicians? Why should I care more about Mr Whittingdale’s private life than about the private life of businessmen, doctors, lawyers, scientists or teachers? Perhaps it’s because government ministers occupy a much more significant position of power. They are elected to be our humble servants. People want politicians to be upright guardians of the realm, making important decisions that affect every aspect our daily lives, and dedicating themselves to the selfless pursuit of the public good.
Of course, this utopian vision of politicians as angels on a higher plane of existence is laughable. We know politicians are human. We know they’ll never have spotless moral characters. Yet we continue to concern ourselves with the minutiae of their private lives, as if what they choose to do in their bedroom is more important than what they choose to do in the legislature.
I don’t want politicians to be angels; I want them to be normal people. Normal people are imperfect—they make mistakes, they do embarrassing things—and nobody expects them to be otherwise. Today, the public complain about the supposed disconnect between the political class and the average person. If we want politicians to be more like us, we have to stop treating them as something special.
Every minute we spend obsessing over politicians’ private lives is a minute we could have spent scrutinising their political decisions. Take the case of David Cameron: he will now go down in history as, among other things, “that PM who may have once put his genitals in the mouth of a dead pig”. I honestly do not care what debauchery Mr Cameron may or may not have engaged in as a student; I care about the things he has done in his capacity as prime minister. The only thing that should matter to us, as the employers of politicians, is whether our employees perform their job well. What they get up to in private should be their concern, and theirs only.
It’s easy to blame the media for plastering the details of people’s private affairs all over our newspapers, TV and computer screens, but supply only exists to meet demand. The media pry into the private lives of politicians, attempting to expose and embarrass them at every turn, because we, the people, demand it. We need to stop demanding it. We need to show politicians the same respect for their privacy that we would show to any regular citizen of this country. At the end of the day, that’s all a politician should be.