The age of the media politician is well and truly upon us. From hits on social media to constant political interviews, long read profiles to politicians on reality TV shows (or the other way around in Donald Trump’s case), politicians are defined by their personality. It is easy for politics, unfortunately, to turn into a soap opera, where the focus becomes the different characters in the political arena rather than important policy developments. Invariably, this damages both the public understanding of politics and our attitude towards politicians.
Media organisations too are under increased pressure. With falling advertising revenue and plummeting sales, not least during the coronavirus pandemic, a greater focus has turned towards generating clicks and headlines. Publications, whether online, tabloid or broadsheet, want a story, a scoop, that will allow them to dominate the public’s attention. Often, this involves politicians, who are already regarded as unpopular by the electorate. This then creates the perfect storm for intrusion into a politician’s private life, not least if what they say in public differs from what they do in private.
Unsurprisingly, this has affected the Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Sacked from the Shadow Cabinet in 2004 for lying about an affair, press controversy over the number of children and alleged misbehaviour at university has been a blot on his political life. In one aspect, this is deeply unfair towards his children and partners. They didn’t choose to seek the limelight, so why should they receive attention? During the 2019 election campaign, LBC presenter Nick Ferrari asked the Prime Minister how many children he had. I couldn’t help but wonder whether that was any business of voters.
The opinion towards a public individual’s private life has also been affected by changing social attitudes. Matters like divorce, which were once deeply frowned upon, are far more socially acceptable. This has been a barrier to high office for neither the Prime Minister or the US President (both divorced twice). Towards adultery however, there remains a level of social condemnation, including from myself. One can’t help but wonder if a politician is so easily willing to lie to their partner whether they are similarly willing to lie to the country. This was evidently the case for Bill Clinton, who lied both to his wife and the American people about his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. There, Clinton was charged both with the condemnation of having an affair and exploiting a young woman.
Apart from open relationships, I still believe relationships are based around the consent and trust between two people. Once an affair has taken place, that trust is surely broken. Do we the public, who place unimaginable levels of trust and power in politicians, not deserve to know whether our elected representatives are liars? Debate over affairs now has declined from the Mary Whitehouse moral condemnation perspective I have presented. Now, scandal in one’s private life is based more around the charge of hypocrisy.
Did someone advocate something that they’ve failed to match themselves? This was a key sticking point for Michael Gove during the 2019 Conservative leadership race. Before entering Parliament, Gove was a journalist who, among other columns, wrote a tirade against middle class cocaine users. This was despite a biography of Gove published during the contest detailing occasions when the politician had himself taken cocaine. The matter was not the drug use itself, but that Gove had so vocally opposed that very action in a national newspaper.
The charge of hypocrisy has also dogged the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who was forced to resign from the government’s SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) committee after the Daily Telegraph published allegations Ferguson had been meeting with his married lover during lockdown. By doing so, Ferguson was flouting and wholly ignoring the very lockdown and social distancing rules he had himself advocated. Again, the matter was not an affair but the charge of hypocrisy. I can’t help but wonder whether the story would have received as much attention if the person in question had not been a glamorous lover, but an old friend from university.
Looking at a matter only through the lens of hypocrisy does lead to morals being the lowest common denominator. As long as someone argues in public that adultery and illegal drug use are fine, that, apparently, is no problem. I disagree. It is better for a politician to hold high morals and not meet them than to hold no morals at all. Hypocrisy alone shouldn’t dictate what aspects of a private life are revealed or scrutinised.
Politicians are just as human as everyone else. We all make mistakes and have errors and secrecy within our personal life. Many politicians feel the need to promote themselves online and through social media like twitter to engage with the electorate and become a 21st century style politician. This does mean more scrutiny and awareness of their lives will commence. They are only given more attention because of their powers and general press cynicism. One also has to account for the baying demands of the public; the media often only fulfil what gets read.
From a scandal comes then comes regret and ministerial resignation. I genuinely believe one mistake and error shouldn’t ruin a politician’s entire future career. That wouldn’t reflect what happens to ‘normal people’, where an individual might restart their career and be allowed to improve. Do we really want politicians who have no past; nothing in their hidden closet? This is particularly going to affect future politicians of our generation. One tweet out of place, one Instagram photo and that’s it for a political career. Consigned to history. If society wants a diversity of opinions from politicians, this cannot happen. For getting individuals into the political arena and keeping them there, this is highly unsustainable.
The electorate and media must become more forgiving. Politicians are walking a tightrope balancing the demands of their party, constituents and different interest groups. When some, like former International trade minister Conor Burns, have allegedly used their parliamentary privilege for a personal matter, that deserves full scrutiny and appropriate sanctions. However, the principle of redemption within politics, and daily life, mustn’t be understated. We are all flawed individuals who will make personal and political mistakes. Should one error, one affair, one unwise tweet define a politician's entire career? I don't think so. Ultimately however, it is not the media or ministers but the electorate who will make the final judgement.