When does a politician’s personal life become our business?

7th February, 2013 11:00 am

Chris Huhne has broken the law and – quite rightly – will likely be going to jail. His personal behaviour, first the speeding then the lying have led to his political downfall. A lawmaker cannot be a lawbreaker.

Chris Huhne deserves to be punished for his wrongdoing. But his public punishment is that jail sentence. His public punishment is the loss of his career. His public punishment is the public exposure of the hubris that has been his undoing.

Chris Huhne chose to be a public figure. His son Peter has not. His son Peter deserves the privacy we would all expect when we are going through a difficult time with our families. That Chris Huhne hypocritically used the family he was about to destroy during an election campaign is not the fault of that family. They should not be further destroyed in the court of public opinion. The texts between Huhne and his son should have been protected. There was no public interest in that heartbreak.

Politician’s children do not belong to the general public. They are private individuals with public parents. Many may choose the same path, but if they do opt for public life, then that should be their choice (that it should be their talent that informs their success, not their connections is a column for another day). Their privacy must be respected and fought for as much as we fight for the privacy of any individual.

It is also true of politicians children whatever age they are. In Ben Goldacre’s otherwise excellent book ‘Bad Science’ he describes the non-disclosure of details around Leo Blair’s vaccinations as “the biggest public health disaster of all”. I understand that Ben Goldacre doesn’t like Tony Blair much, and I respect his reasons why. But the sins of the father should absolutely not be visited on the child. Just as politicians should not use their children as ornaments so too should those children have their privacy respected by others. I believe strongly that supporting the MMR jab in the way the Labour government did was the right thing to do in terms of public health. I don’t believe that opening up the medical records of the Prime Ministers’ children to public scrutiny is the right way to go about promoting that. The MMR disclosure becomes the catalyst for the media seeking disclosure on a lot nastier things.

Imagine if a child of a senior politician contracted a Sexually transmitted disease? Developed an alcohol or drug habit? Had an abortion? Or just wanted to go on the pill at 13? These would be considered along the same “public interest” lines as the MMR job would have been in 2001. Privacy between a patient and a doctor should remain paramount – and that must be particularly true when the patient is a minor, unable to decide for themselves how public they want their medical history to be.

This is true in the wider arena too. If Nick Clegg sends his children to private school I won’t judge them for being privately educated. I will however, judge him for making that choice. Just as I judge any politicians who speaks of fairness and equality while giving their child a wholly artificial boost in life. Not least for not having the clarity to realise that it is their children who suffer in an unequal world too. The failings of Nick Clegg as a politician and he failing of his commitment to the values he espouses are his fault. As a politicians he can and should be judged harshly on them. But just as don’t judge Labour politicians who went to private school for the choices their parents made, so too do I refuse to judge Clegg’s children for his misjudgement.

As the world gets more complicated public every day, we need to think about what we have a right to know from people who are not themselves political actors and who have never sought to be. I may be the last generation who grew up not making my most ghastly mistakes in ways that would have an everlasting digital imprint. As a rather misguided Sunday Express journalist proved when she went after the Facebook pages of the survivors of the Dunblane massacre, it’s easy to find dirt on ordinary kids if you go looking. Imagine how much easier that is when the kid has famous parents.

As the case of Chris Huhne has shown, it was not enough for the press to go after his crime and report his downfall. The family angle was all too prurient for them to ignore. This kind of intrusion – into the lives of people whose only crime was to be born to parents with political jobs – must be part and parcel of any discussion over how privacy and regulation of media intrusion can and must work.

  • http://twitter.com/Efrogwraig Sioned-Mair Richards

    The whole question of politicians children’s lives was horribly shown in Borgen last week when the PM’s daughter has treatment for a mental illness. I do wonder of the effect on our children when we are politically active. Shawn Slovo who loved her parents v much showing in her film “A World Apart” how difficult it is when you just want normal parents who stay at home with you but hey put “the cause” before you. I’m just a councillor but am conscious of the time I spend away from my son if I go to evening meetings.

  • John Wilson

    It becomes our business when their personal business is funded by the taxpayer. Take a look at our local MP. In 2006 we paid out £10,000 for Stamp Duty, Legal Costs and a Survey when he bought a property. He now claims rent, but crucially, he also rents out the property he bought in 2006. There is no sign of him paying back the cost of the Stamp Duty, Legal Costs and Survey back to the taxpayer: http://www.real-whitby.co.uk/conservative-whip-robert-goodwills-parliamentary-expenses

  • Hugh

    The text messages were put in the public arena because they were part of a court case, and read out in court. Given that neither Huhne or his son are minors, there’s not a very good argument that they should have been kept private. Most court cases involve disclosures that are painful and embarrassing to those involved. Do you really want to restrict the right to report what goes on in open court? Furthermore, the judge specifically considered the question of whether there were legal grounds for reporting restrictions and decided against it. You are not talking about restricting “press intrusion” here; you are talking about restricting fundamental functions of the press.

    Likewise, though less seriously, you seem to miss the point about Blair’s refusal to disclose whether he had given his child the MMR: it is not a question comparable to a child contracting a sexually transmitted disease or an alcohol or drug habit. Those are not choices made by the parent. Rather it’s directly comparable to the question of a politician sending their child to private school – and as you note it is fair enough to gauge the sincerity of a politician’s beliefs from the choices they make for their own children. Just as you might judge Nick Clegg (not his children) for his decision to opt for private school, one is perfectly entitled to wonder why if Blair believed the MMR was perfectly safe and his government should not be funding alternatives, he was unwilling to confirm he was happy for his own son to have had it.

    We can I think also apply some common sense even when it comes to medical records: can you point me to a person anywhere in Britain who would actually care if it was publicised they had had the MMR? I absolutely agree that patients have a right to keep their medical history confidential. However, they are free to waive that right and tell people. In the case of a minor, that confidentiality is held in trust by the parent, and again, the parent is free to waive that right. In this case, since Leo would be highly unlikely to give a damn, Blair’s refusal to disclose on the grounds of medical confidentiality struck me as spurious. Much like most of what came out of his mouth.

    • Brumanuensis

      I’m still baffled as to how the text messages were admitted as hearsay evidence. They don’t seem to fit with the hearsay rules set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, ss 114 – 136. But that’s an academic matter.

      • Hugh

        Under Twist it’s not: http://www.3tg.co.uk/library/2833_001.pdf

        See example 3.2 which is pretty much directly comparable.

        • Brumanuensis

          I’m familiar with Twist, but I still find it a bit odd, even after reading 3.2. I half thought it might be res gestae, but discounted that. I’ll have to re-read Twist again to consider the test.

          Of course, some practitioners were unhappy that the CJA 2003 largely reversed the idea of ‘implied assertions’ set out in R v Kearley. That’s another matter however…

        • Brumanuensis

          I’m familiar with Twist, but I still find it a bit odd, even after reading 3.2. I half thought it might be res gestae, but discounted that. I’ll have to re-read Twist again to consider the test.

          Of course, some practitioners were unhappy that the CJA 2003 largely reversed the idea of ‘implied assertions’ set out in R v Kearley. That’s another matter however…

        • Brumanuensis

          I’m familiar with Twist, but I still find it a bit odd, even after reading 3.2. I half thought it might be res gestae, but discounted that. I’ll have to re-read Twist again to consider the test.

          Of course, some practitioners were unhappy that the CJA 2003 largely reversed the idea of ‘implied assertions’ set out in R v Kearley. That’s another matter however…

        • Brumanuensis

          I’m familiar with Twist, but I still find it a bit odd, even after reading 3.2. I half thought it might be res gestae, but discounted that. I’ll have to re-read Twist again to consider the test.

          Of course, some practitioners were unhappy that the CJA 2003 largely reversed the idea of ‘implied assertions’ set out in R v Kearley. That’s another matter however…

        • Brumanuensis

          I’m familiar with Twist, but I still find it a bit odd, even after reading 3.2. I half thought it might be res gestae, but discounted that. I’ll have to re-read Twist again to consider the test.

          Of course, some practitioners were unhappy that the CJA 2003 largely reversed the idea of ‘implied assertions’ set out in R v Kearley. That’s another matter however…

  • Jeremy_Preece

    “Chris Huhne has broken the law and – quite rightly – will likely be going to jail. His personal behaviour, first the speeding then the lying have led to his political downfall”
    Well Emma, I would agree about the lying and particularly the purjury.
    I have a problem with the speeding though, as if it was relevant to either jail or loosing office. This was nothing to do with it. Speeding is something that if we are honest, we have done at some stage even if (like me) we are lucky enough not to have been caught!

    • LeeMatthews

      If he had accepted the points then that would have been the end of it, just like it is for the rest of us that have ever been caught. If he was up to his licence limit then perhaps he should have watched his speed. It was not the speeding that got him into trouble, but the fact he thought it would be ok to break laws with greater consequences

      • Jeremy_Preece

        Yes Lee, that was my point, although I can see on re reading it isn’t clear. Emma says that he is in trouble for “first the speeding” and my point is that it was not the speeding but what came next.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Homfray/510980099 Mike Homfray

        I would have thought a multi millionaire could have provided work for a personal driver rather than lie about who was driving the car?

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    Emma, I agree completely with the main points that you make. I have no knowledge of the law, which Brumanuensis and others on this thread do, so I can only comment from personally held principles.

    But there is one issue that you do not address that I think is also relevant. Any child of a politician has two parents, one of whom is not normally in the public domain or if they are, normally presented as an adornment on their spouse’s arm, despite any of their personal achievements. They to my mind have every right to an opinion on her (normally) or his child’s privacy, and even more so if the child is a minor. So for examples Samantha Cameron, Sarah Brown, Cherie Blair, Norma Major, Dennis Thatcher and they are just the recent PM’s wives. Many others also qualify – spouses of the leaders of the opposition, deputy PM, etc.

    It is probably futile for me to suggest, but if a newspaper editor ever considers publishing some “gossip” about a PM’s drunken son, or worse any medical details about such a child (hang your head in shame, the editor of the paper with prurient and more importantly improperly sourced material about David Cameron’s son Ivan who died of cerebral palsy), then this is a country I would no longer wish to live in, and more importantly, as I am not affected, a country in which an unaffected spouse can see their private grief translated into newspaper sales.

    This is not about politics. It is about Mammon, and newspapers getting some temporary “blip” in sales, and uncaring of the effect.

  • Brumanuensis

    One of the oddest features of the Huhne-Pryce case is that Vicky Pryce has chosen to advance a defence of marital coercion under s. 47 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925. My understanding is that most legal commentators think this is pretty weak beer and the Law Commission recommended the offence be abolished, all the way back in 1977. However it seems there is some precedent for relying on it for RTA offences ( http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/1379262/B-test-wife-cleared-after-being-forced-to-take-wheel.html ). Ultimately though, the whole thing is so archaic and legally porous – it requires the husband’s presence as I understand – that it seems hard to believe she will succeed.

    Interestingly, the defence isn’t available to those in a Civil Partnership. Equality? What equality?

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