When private lives matter

Should the media be 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.

Mark Camilleri released chat conversations between Rosianne Cutajar and Yorgen Fenech (right).Mark Camilleri released chat conversations between Rosianne Cutajar and Yorgen Fenech (right).

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.

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.

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.

Mark Said – Msida

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