When are they fair game?

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When should the private lives and conversations of politicians be made public?

Kenneth Roy

On the day Gordon Brown made disobliging remarks about Mrs Duffy in his car, a conversation picked up by a radio microphone and immediately broadcast, I seemed to be in a minority of one in seeing no public interest defence for using the tape. Sources as various as the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade and our own Alan Fisher took me to task. There was pretty well unanimous agreement – among journalists at any rate….

Kenneth Roy

On the day Gordon Brown made disobliging remarks about Mrs Duffy in his car, a conversation picked up by a radio microphone and immediately broadcast, I seemed to be in a minority of one in seeing no public interest defence for using the tape. Sources as various as the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade and our own Alan Fisher took me to task. There was pretty well unanimous agreement – among journalists at any rate – that the conversation was revealing of the then prime minister’s character and that it was only right he should be shown up as a tyrant and a bully. 
     I could not detect these unattractive qualities in Mr Brown’s voice. He sounded to me merely tired, very tired indeed, and a bit grumpy. It is possible that the reason the tape was seized upon and broadcast with such relish is not that it revealed Gordon Brown’s character but that it made cracking entertainment for the masses. But even if the then prime minister had sounded more like a tyrant and a bully than he obviously did, I would still have seen no public interest defence. It was a private conversation. All of us are entitled to have one.
     
Since, however, Roy Greenslade and Alan Fisher set a respectable standard for such media behaviour, a copy-cat killing was inevitable. The assassination duly took place in, all of places, the public petitions committee of the Scottish Parliament last week. The commitee’s then chairman, Frank McAveety, whose only passing resemblance to Gordon Brown is that they both appear to be members of the same political party, was ‘caught’ (the word commonly employed in the press) during an interval in the proceedings, again with the incriminating microphone still on, saying nice things about an attractive young woman in the chamber.
     The BBC helpfully broadcast Mr McAveety’s comments with sub-titles. The sub-titles were necessary, not for the reason that they will be necessary in bringing ‘The Scheme’ to the people of England and Wales, but because without them the chairman would have been more or less inaudible. No one in the room, apart from the discreet committee clerk to whom the remarks were addressed, would have heard what Mr McAveety was saying, but some vigilant electronic eavesdropper must have picked up a word or two and painstakingly played and replayed the tape until he or she was able to piece together a coherent transcript.
     The public petitions committee is not the most exciting gig even by Holyrood standards, so we can discount the possibility that it was packed with tabloid hacks eager to pounce on some verbal indiscretion from the chair. One wonders, then, about the identity and motivation of the peeping Tam or Tamette who decided to expose Frank McAveety as a heterosexual male with a mild interest in Gauguin. Whoever it was will, of course, defend the action on public interest grounds as revealing of Mr McAveety’s character. I do not think it revealed very much of his character, other than a manner of speech well-known in the west of Scotland and a naive assumption about the young woman’s age. But again it distracted the masses for a couple of days. By the way (as they say in Glasgow) it finished Mr McAveety.
     These cases, and two other current ones, prompt the bigger question of when the private utterances and lives of politicians are fair game for the media.
     David Laws, the deposed chief secretary to the Treasury, had reached the age of 44 without being able to tell his closest family that he was gay. So obsessed was Mr Laws by the need to keep his sexuality a secret, he claimed expenses from the public purse in order to disguise the true nature of his relationship with his landlord, who turned out to be his partner. The issue here was not the sexuality of David Laws but the irregularity of his expenses claims. There may be a subsidiary question about the level of his emotional maturity, but by all accounts Mr Laws was extremely competent; the fact that he tortured himself about the need for privacy in a central area of his life does not appear to have affected his fitness to do his job.
     
The case of Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, is more straightforward. He has left his wife because he wishes to live with another woman. Here, too, there is evidence of subterfuge. Mr Huhne left one of his many houses alone, followed a few minutes later by his girlfriend; they stood at opposite ends of a railway platform and boarded the train separately; once safely on the train they spoke on the telephone and arranged to meet for breakfast in first-class. All this was being observed by a tabloid newspaper which on Sunday published what it called a ‘world exclusive’: a photograph (‘the one they all wanted’) of Mr Huhne and his girlfriend. Despite his odd behaviour on the railways, his evident terror of media exposure and his haunted look, Mr Huhne will not resign, nor should he; there is no issue of public policy as there was in the case of Mr Laws. It is a private matter, just as the conversations of Gordon Brown and Frank McAveety were private.
     Although Roy Greenslade and Alan Fisher will disagree, the only one of the four politicians who should have been exposed is David Laws: because he claimed expenses which he should not have claimed. That is a matter of public interest. The rest is prurience.

Read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review.

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