Snowden and Clinton and Privacy…Oh My!
Ever since former CIA contractor Edward Snowden revealed the scope of the NSA’s surveillance of American citizens and allies, Americans have collectively questioned if they have done a poor job of balancing the right to privacy with intelligence efforts meant to safeguard American interests and safety. The Snowden revelations called attention to the lack of consensus around whether privacy is an inalienable right in the same way that freedom of speech is, or simply a privilege that democratic governments are justified in suspending when they feel the security of the nation is at stake. Further complicating matters is the ongoing integration of technology into the social fabric of democracies, which is turning privacy into an outdated and irrelevant concept in many ways. No one worries about privacy when posting their exact location on Facebook, yet when the government caches less specific information, an indignant public protests the infringement of a right that no one is able to fully articulate—or justify in legal terms—in a world where such contradictions abound.
The question of whether the media is obligated to report on the private lives of elected officials may not at first seem to have much in common with the questions raised by the NSA’s data collection practices, yet in both cases the central concern is in what measure should the privacy of the individual be sacrificed for the greater good of the nation. It can be argued that both of these are matters of national security, though many may doubt the utility of retaining the metadata of millions of mobile phone users as a national security measure. Similarly, though it is hard to believe that the media served America’s national interests by slavishly covering Bill Clinton’s dalliances with Monica Lewinsky, a case can be made that the voting public must be made aware of such circumstances in order to make an informed decision about who should lead the country. In this paper I will examine the case for privacy as an inalienable right, and, if it is, if a politician’s right to privacy should be waived for the greater good. I will argue that there are many reasons to eliminate coverage of politicians’ private lives, and I will show that, in many cases, the media’s excessive coverage of elected officials’ personal lives weakens the very democracies it endeavours to protect.
A Brief History of the “Right to Be Let Alone”
The concept of a legal right to privacy was first espoused by American lawyers Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis, whose article “The Right to Privacy” appeared in an 1890 issue of the Harvard Law Review. In the article, the right to privacy was defined as the “right to be let alone,” and while not explicitly protected by US law, Warren and Brandeis located the (imperfect) basis of a right to privacy in property law in the form of a precedent for “a principle which may be invoked to protect the privacy of the individual from invasion either by the too enterprising press, the photographer, or the possessor of any other modern device for recording or reproducing scenes or sounds.” The article is often cited as the foundation of privacy law and the basis for over two dozen US states’ common law recognition of privacy as a legal right.
So although a “right to privacy” is not explicitly enshrined in the US Constitution, it could be argued that the right to privacy is a logical consequence of the right to property guaranteed in the Constitution. However, Warren and Brandeis used the case of Prince Albert v. Strange to note that, though the stated reasoning for the ruling was protection of property, breach of “trust or confidence” was given as a secondary justification. This implies that the judge found something morally reprehensible about invasion of privacy, but was not able to fully articulate the problem using legal language and had to recur to moral sensibility. Perhaps this is a symptom of the law’s oft-lamented inability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances; though we cite this feature of law today in relation to technology and civil rights, in the late 19th century, the law had not yet adapted to the unprecedented level of individuality in Western societies to which liberalism had given rise.
Despite the advancements made as a result of Warren and Brandeis’ article, privacy has remained a legal grey area throughout the 20th century up until the present day. The UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes an article enshrining the right to privacy, and, though nations make a sport of ignoring the UN—and the Declaration—when it suits them, the inclusion of a right to privacy suggests that it was a commonly held value; 48 countries voted in favour. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms does not explicitly protect privacy rights, but the 1983 Privacy Act and subsequent legislation provides a more explicit legal protection of privacy than in the US, at least in terms of data collection by federal agencies. In fact, the greatest legal minds in America cannot agree on whether or not NSA surveillance is unconstitutional, and those who affirm that it is have some trouble deciding which amendment has been violated (though general consensus is the Fourth). This state of affairs points to the legal purgatory in which the right to privacy resides: privacy has the unique status of a societal value not entirely protected by law.
Chasing the Crack-Fuelled Chimera
Now the question is this: if ordinary citizens’ right to privacy is tenuous at best, should serving in public office entail the renouncement of the right to privacy to serve the greater good? It could be argued that by virtue of serving in public office, politicians waive their right to privacy, which in many nations is not inalienable in the first place. Apart from the issue of whether or not knowledge of a politician’s private life is even relevant to his or her ability to govern (which I will resolve later), the invasive treatment of public figures by the media raises two moral dilemmas. First is the fact that, while politicians choose to be in the public eye, their families and friends are often the objects of public scrutiny without having ever consented to such treatment. It seems wrong that politicians motivated by a desire to serve their fellow citizens be recompensed by the harassment of their families and loved ones. It could be argued that this is collateral damage unavoidable in the democratic process, but one may question why a “fair and just” democracy should exact such a high human cost.
The second argument against the idea that politicians must waive their right to privacy as a condition of public service is the fact that, even if the right to privacy is tenuous, media invasiveness at its most extreme violates many more rights than just that of privacy. For example, the media’s treatment of Rob Ford at virtually any point in his tenure as Mayor of Toronto can be classified as anything from bullying to extreme harassment. If an online campaign complete with fat jokes, abusive statements, and embarrassing photos had been waged against a teenage girl, there would be a public outcry; somehow when it involves a middle-aged man with substance abuse issues, it becomes comedy. When the media repeatedly broadcasts footage of Mr Ford’s failed attempt at throwing a football or makes comments about his girth, political coverage is stripped of any semblance of dignity, and the reporters who propagate it essentially become bullies. And when Toronto Star reporters lurk behind Mr. Ford’s property after business hours and members of the press swarm Mr. Ford on a daily basis, this constitutes harassment beyond the parameters of respectful coverage. Even if one believes that Mr. Ford is not entitled to privacy, surely he is entitled to some measure of liberty and security—both of which he is routinely deprived due to the media’s predatory tactics.
Some would argue that if Mr. Ford had behaved in a dignified and orderly (read: normal) manner, then he would not be experiencing such a high level of scrutiny. However, the right to be free from harassment exists regardless of an individual’s moral character (which is good news for many politicians). And apart from the question of whether Mr Ford’s outlandish behaviour makes him a fair target of the media frenzy, it has not yet been established that any coverage of Ford’s personal life and gaffes is relevant to his public service record (or lack thereof). In the introduction to this paper, I asked whether the privacy of the individual should be sacrificed for the greater good of the nation; in this instance, absolutely no greater good has come from the media’s scrutiny of Rob Ford. When charges are laid, the public should know, but until that happens, the Toronto Star is wasting its resources chasing a crack-fuelled chimera.
The Bedrooms of the Nation
The argument can be made that voters must have a clear and accurate portrait of a politician’s private life in order to make an informed decision at the polls, and this is completely understandable. While candidates should be elected primarily on the strength of their policy platforms, voters still want to know that their leaders share the same values as them. After all, politicians are stand-ins for the populace, and cannot consult citizens for each important decision; in times of emergency especially, it is comforting to know that the person calling the shots thinks like the people (s)he represents. Furthermore, many are of the opinion that a politician’s private life is a reliable indicator of ability to govern.
This line of thinking is patently wrong. One need look no further than the long list of great leaders whose private lives range from mildly pathetic to hilariously catastrophic. For example, Canada’s two most legendary Prime Ministers, William Lyon Mackenzie King and John A. MacDonald, were exemplary politicians, yet utter failures in many other ways. Mackenzie King was infamous for his interest in the occult, communicating with the spirits of his deceased terrier dogs through his crystal ball. He never married and there is speculation that he may have consorted with prostitutes on lonely nights when the terrier spirits were too busy for a chat. For his part, John A. Macdonald was a raging alcoholic: he is said to have once drunkenly vomited during a public debate, but recovered brilliantly after proclaiming that it was his opponent’s stomach-turning pronouncements that caused him to be sick. Gandhi’s abstinence-testing experiments gave even his most ardent supporters pause, and we all know the story of Bill Clinton’s philandering. It should also be noted that many leaders’ public behaviour is incongruous with their private actions: Spanish dictator Francisco Franco was rumored to get teary-eyed over personal matters, and Montreal’s two most recent mayors, Gérald Trembley and Michael Applebaum, were both ousted on corruption charges despite being family men.
These examples should make it clear that a politician’s private life is not a reliable indicator of how (s)he will govern. To be sure, most dictators’ biographies are peppered with bizarre and disturbing behaviour, but, while being a weirdo is often a prerequisite for despots, it does not preclude the ability to govern well. And even if it did, most democratic societies have many measures in place to prevent the rogue leader from doing too much damage (they failed here). The system of checks and balances and fixed term limits ensures that if a leader proves grossly unsuitable, (s)he will not remain in office for long.
The flip side of judging leaders based on their private lives and perceived values is that elections become more a popularity contest than discussions of policy and issues. Often the leader who espouses the most wholesome values wins, regardless of ideology. In Barack Obama’s case, his friendships with Bruce Springsteen and Jay Z cemented his image as a “hip” politician while making it absolutely impossible for me not to like him. After seeing him hanging out with two of the best people ever, I knew I supported him without having to hear any of his policies—is this right? Another more sobering example is Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. His campaign last year focused on his friendship with late President Hugo Chávez and his humble working class origins. Here we can clearly see the pernicious effects of judging a leader based on personal attributes and allegiances rather than politics—Venezuela is now in turmoil because Maduro was outrageously unprepared to govern a country. (Venezuela recently almost ran out of toilet paper, and Maduro was somehow permitted to change the date of Christmas last year.) The dilemma voters face is similar to that faced by recruiters: they can pick a candidate they like, but ultimately there is no way to know for sure. This is why credentials and ideas need to be at the forefront, while friendships with Jay Z and tendencies toward extreme binge drinking should be disregarded whenever possible.
Functional Alcoholics Need Jobs Too
Some may argue that a politician’s private life can drastically impede his/her ability to govern, and therefore voters have the right to be informed of these circumstances. When the phone rings in the middle of the night with an emergency situation, citizens prefer their leader to be ready to spring into action. So what of a leader like Rob Ford, who would have to be reached on his mobile phone because he is soused and babbling in Patois at an Etobicoke Steak Queen? If a leader’s personal circumstances are such that they will significantly hinder his/her professional performance, the intuitive conclusion would be that the public should be informed. However, a poorly-performing politician will not last long in today’s volatile political climate—is it really essential for the public to know the reason the expense of the politician’s privacy? For example, recently in Italy an ok-performing Prime Minister was ousted by a member of his own party. Democracies today are increasingly fickle and unstable, and leaders are routinely turfed for sneezing the wrong way (with the exception of our dear Mr. Ford, who refuses to go quietly).
Of course, if a politician mishandles a disaster due to his/her personal issues, the damage cannot be undone. But politicians with exemplary private lives mishandle disasters frequently, and in a democracy, no leader is an island, making it hard for a politician to singlehandedly jump the shark. The botched response to Hurricane Katrina, for instance, was a collaborative effort led by George W. Bush and supported by a team of incompetent individuals who had their personal affairs perfectly in order.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
An unfortunately common by-product of the media’s excessive focus on politicians’ personal lives is the tendency to neglect discussion of policy in favour of sensationalist coverage of juicy private scandals. This is a waste of resources, and even those who believe the public has the right to be informed of political leaders’ private lives will likely agree. Even if a news agency were to print wonkish policy articles alongside sensationalist articles, it isn’t hard to guess which ones would receive the most attention. Amid all the coverage of Mayor Ford’s countless scandals, it is nearly impossible to determine what the man has accomplished in office during his term. No one seems to know or care, and the precious few articles that do attempt to address his record are vague and inconclusive.
This is symptomatic of the tendency of the press to gravitate toward sensationalist stories. Granted, the story about Rob Ford falling off the scale at a weigh-in will probably sell better than a story about his budget proposals, and no one can blame a newspaper for wanting to stay afloat. However, the lack of reliable information regarding Mr. Ford’s public record can be seen as contrary to the very spirit of democracy: the media has an obligation to inform the public on matters relevant to taxpayers. Mr. Ford claims he has saved his constituents $1 billion dollars in taxes; there are very few serious examinations of his claims by the media, and even less information on what social programs are being eliminated to provide for these cuts. The complete lack of economic analysis in regard to Mr. Ford’s economic policies is unfit and—quite frankly, shocking—for a city that calls itself the financial capital of Canada. (At its height, Crackgate also eclipsed all major world events in the Canadian media.)
An interesting counterpoint to the coverage Mr. Ford has received can be found in France. It was recently revealed by a French tabloid that President Francois Hollande cheated on long-time partner Valerie Trierweiler with actress Julie Gayet. A recent press conference held in France by President Hollande cofounded Anglophone journalists; in France, journalists politely ignore personal matters such as these, so the press conference was mostly devoid of the shrill heckling that characterises North American press conferences involving public figures that have recently undergone a scandal. (Though The Economist notes that this convention is changing: the issue of the tabloid that revealed Hollande’s affair sold out in hours.) Even if everyone in France was hoping to learn of the sordid details of the President’s love life, most articles about the press conference focused on the dismal state of the French economy and what was being done to remedy it, much to the dismay of French readers looking for an amusing diversion. How novel!
The need for journalists to focus on the issues in their coverage of politicians is all the more relevant in this transitional era of media: newspapers have finite (and meagre) resources to devote, and allocating excessive resources to pay journalists to lurk near Rob Ford’s property means less can be spent on stories that inform the public about Rob Ford’s record in office. A striking illustration of this was seen a year ago in the Toronto Star, when the newspaper chose to run a multiple-page spread about allegations that Rob Ford was drunk at a party. Less than one quarter of a page was devoted to coverage of world events that day.
A Confederacy of Dunces
Unfortunately, our era of underfunded newspapers coincides with a stronger-than-ever fascination with the private lives of public figures. In difficult financial times the temptation to run a sensationalist story to make a quick buck is tough to resist, but does the media have a moral obligation to avoid catering to the lowest common denominator? If so, this would elevate the media to Philosopher King-like status, where members of the general public are in Plato’s cave never having seen the light, and it is the job of the wise, enlightened reporters/Philosopher Kings to direct public attention to where it should be. That seems like a lot of responsibility for a group that counts Jerry Springer and Alex Jones as members, but until they start handing out journalism licences, here they will remain. Figures such as Allen Ginsberg and Noam Chomsky have warned of the dangers of underestimating the power of the media, and Malcolm X famously declared that “the media’s the most powerful entity on earth.”
The best solution to the tendencies of some (but by no means all) reporters toward sensationalism is to take politicians’ private lives out of the mix. If a politician’s personal life is fair game, journalists must navigate the line between sensationalism and prudent reporting, and many will inadvertently cross the line at one time or another. Even good journalists are not immune to succumbing to the temptation to “run with a story” if they think it will earn them notoriety (because notoriety is sometimes a better career kick-starter than respect, at least in the short term—just ask John Cook). One could argue that in this case the benefit of having an informed populace outweighs the sensationalism incurred by allowing reporters to cover leaders’ private lives, but, as I have already argued, there is little benefit to knowing personal details about politicians. And by banning coverage of public figures’ personal lives, journalism as a profession will only grow stronger by driving away those reporters who want to gossip; they can go write for In Touch or TMZ instead.
Journalists are only human, and though they usually try to keep personal opinions out of coverage in order to maintain the appearance of impartiality, viewpoints will inevitably come through. This is normal, as it is impossible for a subjective being to be completely objective. However, every so often a journalist crosses the line and lets personal feelings get in the way of accurate coverage. If a journalist is set on taking a politician down, I see no problem with this if the journalist can back it up with facts about the politician’s record and policies. For example, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is a frequent target of my blogs. In my own way, I am trying to take him down (though he makes himself a pretty easy target) by pointing out the many idiotic things his government has done, such as constantly devaluing the currency and somehow managing to trigger a nation-wide toilet paper shortage. It’s personal. However, this is not the same thing as attacking Maduro for falling off a bicycle in public (which he did) or any other feature of his private life.
Letting journalists cover politicians’ private lives gives the psychopathic ones permission to dig up dirt in order to further their own political agenda rather than doing it strictly through policy analysis, which usually has less of an impact on public opinion. For example, Star journalist Robyn Doolittle’s crusade to take down Rob Ford too often veers into the realm of the irrelevant. In her book about Ford, entitled Crazy Town, she goes as far as to include a quote from Doug Ford’s yearbook: “Scarlett Heights is nice and hearty every day was a party. I can’t believe Im [sic] still alive after five,” as if the fact that the mayor’s brother partied in high school is proof that malevolent blood runs through the Fords’ veins. Doolittle also includes a hard-hitting interview with a Bier Markt busboy/“eyewitness,” who tells of the night he saw Rob Ford partying with a young girl in a private room. While cheating is morally reprehensible, so is paying a respected journalist to spy on someone for such a ridiculous reason. Investigative journalism is too lofty a term for this malarkey. Ms. Doolittle’s time would be better spent investigating Mr. Ford’s ubiquitous $1 billion saved claims, and which social programs he had to cut to allow for these “savings.” But sober policy analysis doesn’t get anyone a book deal, while tawdry details about train-wreck politicians’ private lives are in high demand.
The Good Ones Go
The argument can be made that allowing coverage of politicians’ private lives will dissuade those who have something to hide from entering politics. This might be the case (though it certainly was not in the case of Rob Ford), but the scrutiny will also deter many good candidates who do not want to subject their families to the media’s harassment. Ironically enough, those who care most about their family’s well-being will be most reluctant to put it in the public eye. What’s more, this system favours those politicians who can adeptly lie and cover up unsavoury details about their private lives. Simply put, nations will have less worthy candidates and more skilled liars from which to choose.
There’s No Business Like…Politics
Politics has a definite tendency to get theatrical. The recent Senate scandal alone produced enough overwrought monologues and dramatic incidents to populate a Shakespearean play. Suspended Senator Pamela Wallin casually—and idiotically—tosses the phrases “lynch mob,” “affront to democracy,” and “personal vendetta” around when describing her situation, while an aura of intrigue continues to surround former Harper Chief of Staff Nigel Wright’s unexplained repayment of Conservative Senator Mike Duffy’s fraudulently claimed expenses with a personal cheque.
With politics so prone to drama, it is dangerous and unnecessary to bring politicians’ private lives into the mix. Our democratic process already resembles a cheap soap opera, and when the lines between show business and politics are blurred, actors such as Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger mistakenly think that they are entitled to “cross over” into politics because the two realms seem so similar. But they are not—if more time were devoted to debating policy rather than what Sarah Palin has to say about her pregnant teenage daughter, it would be harder to confuse show business with politics; this will benefit everyone (except fans of Bristol Palin’s reality TV show and blog). An added benefit is that reporters partial to salacious stories can go write for TMZ, and the world can be spared Bristol Palin’s political musings. Of course, an essential part of politics consists of interpersonal relationships—between politicians, as well as politicians and constituents—and drama is inevitable whenever humans endeavour to cooperate. However, the focus should be on running the country rather than “personal vendettas.”
Those Americans who feel their privacy has been invaded by the NSA’s surveillance program should imagine what a public figure such as Rob Ford, to take an (admittedly extreme) example, goes through on a daily basis and ask themselves if someone who is ostensibly in the service of the public deserves this treatment. As the aftermath of the Snowden revelations has shown, privacy law is surprisingly undeveloped in the US and many other countries, yet there is a strong sense of moral entitlement to the right to be “let alone” that is not fully articulated in law. Moreover, as the media attempts to obtain more and more salacious stories, the bar will be continuously lowered until practices like the News of the World‘s phone-hacking become more commonplace. Perhaps if this violation were necessary for a healthy democracy, it would be justifiable; however, more often than not, coverage of politicians’ personal affairs diverts resources and public attention away from issues of national importance. Think of it this way: is the treatment the media gives Justin Bieber fitting of Barack Obama?