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Politicians, Privacy and the Public Interest


Ivor Gaber  21 April 2016

WHERE’S the balance between politicians as lawmakers and politicians as private individuals?

Should we, their ultimate employers, have a right to know about their private lives, their financial affairs and anything else that takes our fancy?

Or are there lines that shouldn’t be crossed?

The answer to the last question is clear enough – there are lines but they differ from one situation to another.

A politician who has made a career out of preaching the values of family life, or the evils of tax dodging, has less grounds to complain if his or her sexual or financial affairs are publicly revealed than one who has made no such pronouncements.

But these lines are easier to draw in theory rather than practice.

This past week has seen a flurry of tax returns, or at least personal income statements, being published by a clutch of senior politicians including the Prime Minister.

These came as a result of the leaking of the so-called Panama Papers that revealed how, among others, the Prime Minister’s late father took advantage of the favourable tax regimes that can be found in remote (usually sunny) spots such as the British Virgin Islands.

This raised the question as to what extent did this cut across the Prime Minister’s frequent statements about his personal commitment to tackling the problem of tax avoidance both in the UK and globally.

On one level you could argue that since he had himself benefited from his father’s wealth being made in low or non-tax regimes there was an element of hypocrisy about him not coming clean earlier about his own personal position.

But that’s only one way of looking at it. As my Brighton barber put it: “Why are we having a go at politicians who, just like the rest of us, want that little bit extra for themselves and their family, as long as it’s legal?”

And that seems like a fair point – except that politicians aren’t “just like the rest of us”.

First, because politicians can find themselves in situations in which they are taking decisions which directly influence their own personal finances.

Second, because as elected public officials, they have a duty not just to do the right thing but to be seen to do the right thing and hence their conduct should always not just be, but appear to be, beyond reproach.

Appearing to be beyond reproach is vital at a time when public trust in politicians is low – and that’s the link to this week’s other big “politicians and privacy” story. It involved the culture secretary John Whittingdale who is responsible for press regulation.

It was revealed that he had been in an affair with a woman two years ago who turned out to be a dominatrix (sex worker to you and me).

Tabloid newspapers took the view that since he was not married, nor did he know of the woman’s other life, it was “not in the public interest” to publish the story.

A slightly surprising decision given their previous enthusiasm to reveal the sex lives of politicians and the current court case they are pursuing to be allowed to publish the name of an anonymous celebrity involved in a sex threesome.

In normal circumstances I would be applauding their decision not to publish the Whittingdale story but these are not normal circumstances.

However, for me the decision of the tabloids not to publish the story is not the central issue

The central issue is one of trust and the spotlight should not be on the tabloid press but on the politician.

For once Mr Whittingdale knew that the papers had information about his liaison with a sex worker it probably would have been wise for him to go to the Prime Minister and say that, because there might appear to be a conflict of interest, it would be better if he had nothing to do with press regulation matters?

I have no evidence to suggest that Mr Whittingdale has been in any way influenced in his decisions about regulation by the fact that he knew the tabloids had a sex story about him waiting in the wings but it’s easy to see why some might think that to be the case. And it all comes back to the same issue as David Cameron’s tax returns.

Politicians not only have to act legally and ethically, they have to make sure that they’re seen to be acting legally and ethically as well, and if and when that happens, trust in politicians will rise.


Ivor Gaber is Professor of journalism at the University of Sussex and a former political journalist for the BBC, ITV, Channel Four and Sky News.


About ivorgaber (1 Article)
Academic, journalist, broadcaster, coach and consultant

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