As a social scientist I know that missing data is as relevant as the available data, because what is unsaid has a lot to say about what is and is not valued.
Recommendations on ‘the’ way forward further to magisterial inquiry on Egrant are no exception.
Among numerous recommendations in press to date, I have not come across any that concern the wellbeing of politicians’ families and especially their children.
Michelle Muscat reprimanded those “who usually have a lot to say about everything, (but) never had a word to say” on the hardships affecting her children.
Among the possible reasons for the silence vilified by Ms Muscat, I underline the following unfortunate lacunae in social wellbeing:
1. Those voicing the rights of politicians’ children are a scattered minority with a minority of followers.
Media and mass viewings are more likely to go for sexy, but “sexy” and “children” in the same context are obnoxious.
Politicians’ children are guaranteed mass following when acting or being projected as obnoxious.
2. Among those voicing the rights of politicians’ children, those with first-hand experience of childhood in a political family are an even smaller minority.
So, while first-hand testimonials are essential for any effective campaign, as minors, affected children have a limited and adult-curated voice on the matter.
3. Adults with first-hand experience of childhood in public life are often reluctant to revisit that part of their past.
When an adult Chelsea Clinton was asked about her childhood experience of the Clinton-Lewinsky affair she “looked briefly taken aback before responding ‘… I do not think that is any of your business’”.
It’s too painful, and the risk of being misinterpreted as attention-seekers or being accused of using childhood as a political football is too great.
Which leads to the following…
4. Politicians’ children are more vulnerable to misrepresentation.
Hugo Rifkind, son of British conservative Malcolm Rifkind, explained how “people have an entirely erroneous conception of what life is like in a politicaly family… you grow up wary and a little nervy; prematurely aware… of the seemingly bottomless willingness of otherwise pleasant humans to blithely consider people they don’t really know to be absolute scum”.
Granted, the social wellbeing of politicians’ family members may be easily dismissed as one of those sarcastically labelled ‘first world problems’. Politicians embarking on the endeavour are sitting ducks to the ‘self-serving’ tag.
Yet, downplaying the matter whitewashes how politicians’ family members are likely to be co-opted in a politician’s career and are likely to have nuanced feelings about the whole experience.
In Malta, the Commissioner for Children’s Guidelines on the Participation of Children in Political Campaigns are very relevant for producers of political communication to validate children's consensual and direct participation - such as posing for a billboard photo or acting in a campaign video.
Yet, the Egrant affair signals a broader scope of risk for children, particularly when promotional material is critical and oppositional and when it is targeted at children’s loved ones.
Broadening the scope of activity and responsibility entailed in the present guidelines would not be aimed at curbing freedom of expression of media entities, civil society organisations and individual citizens.
Ultimately, the wellbeing of politicians’ children is inextricably linked to progress on other pet subjects in Maltese society, such as enhanced work-life balance and increased female participation in politics.
Advocacy of political families’ wellbeing, particularly that of minor children involved, implies seeing the bigger picture.
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