The Politics of Privacy

In recent weeks we have seen a controversy initiated by the ABC’s investigation into the private affairs of two cabinet members of the Morrison coalition government. The most frequent criticism of the public broadcaster has been that it seems to have singled out members of the government for moral scrutiny but has not applied similar scrutiny to the opposition.

That, in itself, is reasonable criticism. The ABC has a consistent bias towards left wing politics.

Whilst I don’t watch much of the ABC’s TV offering, I listen to the ABC’s classical FM station for many hours a day. Consequently I listen to a considerable number of the ABC’s radio news bulletins. Invariably they are quick to seize upon issues that would seemingly embarrass the government. And more so when there is a controversial news item they are far more inclined to go to the opposition and more likely the Greens for a response than they are to solicit comment from the government.

So it is clear in my mind that the public broadcaster has an ideological bias. The ABC has no conservative commentators or producers involved in compiling their news and current affairs bulletins or providing political analysis.

But, I would contend, the Four Corner’s expose´ regarding the personal lives of Alan Tudge and Christian Porter was more regrettable for the intrusion into their personal lives than for the political bias it displayed.

In past decades the barriers we erected around our private lives were more generally respected. The tabloid papers and women’s magazines often subjected celebrities such as film stars and royalty to prurient investigation to titillate their readers but politicians were seldom subjected to such interrogation.

In general there now seems to be contradictory trends.

On the one hand we see a growing fragility of the self-concept. This is manifested in the flight to identity politics were many now seem to need the reassurance of group membership to bolster their sense of self. It is also manifested in a worrying tendency to shut down dissenting opinions.

Yet on the other hand with the proliferation of social media many of our citizens seem compelled to share their most intimate details with those with whom they are electronically connected. And in this rarefied atmosphere the trite is often raised to the status of great importance.

The dissolution of the barriers between the public and the private has now had a considerable impact on politics. This has tended to render politics personal. As Frank Furedi has observed:

Once the personal is rendered political, not even the most intimate dimension of human life can remain immune from being dragged into the political net.

Ideally politics should be about the most appropriate policies for the betterment of society. I don’t think it should deteriorate into a morality contest between the participants. The Mother Teresas of the world may be fine people but I doubt if they would make our most effective politicians. For example Bob Hawke had some obvious personal moral failings, but most would concede he was one of the better Australian prime ministers in relatively recent times. (And I don’t say this in a derogatory way because there have been many effective politicians from both sides of politics whom we could instance as being far from paragons of virtue.)

Because of these changes in the social milieu, it is increasingly difficult to answer the question of where public life ends and where private life begins. More and more politicians are being judged on their appearances, personal attributes and their character rather than their stance on public policy or their ability to progress the fortune of their state or country.

The so-called investigative journalists troll the archives to highlight the follies of these suspect politicians in their youth as though that somehow reflected their current attitudes and beliefs. Who of us would care to be held to account under such conditions? Who of us would wish to be judged by what we did in the naivety of our youth?

And all this seeking after titillating material about such politicians enables them sometimes to avoid having their beliefs and stances on policy scrutinised which is surely the basis for a more relevant discussion on their political worth. When the politicians’ personal affairs are deemed to be morally repugnant it enables those obsessed with the shallow criticism that proliferates in social media to dismiss the political stances of such people and arbitrarily to cast them aside without due consideration.

I wouldn’t be greatly concerned if the media held politicians (or indeed anyone) to account for illegality or criminal activity, but it seems to serve no public good to have them scrutinised for morality of their behaviour in private. As the Bible says “let he without sin cast the first stone”. There may be some morally upright political reporters but on average they are probably just as morally tainted as the rest of us and would indeed seem inappropriate that they should be “casting stones”.

To make matters worse, as our society has become more sectarian, morality has become increasingly subjective. Accordingly, the moral standards against which these politicians are being assessed are relatively arbitrary and not at all universally accepted. Consequently the standards we apply to such politicians, under selective and extreme scrutiny, are not uniformly applied to the rest of the population.

As a result I believe that we should not unduly interrogate the private lives of those in public office except to hold them to account for their professed beliefs not their moral rectitude.

8 Replies to “The Politics of Privacy”

  1. Thank you for your insightful article, where you have identified a number of points that really resonated with me. I wish you a successful and rewarding 2021 and look forward to reading your posts in the new year.

  2. Would a gay politician with moral failings get the same scrutiny? Surely not. Would an aboriginal elder / politician with questionable morals be subjected to the same rigorous investigation by 4 corners. It seems white straight males of mainstream religious faith are clearly much more in need of moral guidance than the victim classes society has come to protect. Maybe we need a politician safe space.

  3. Ted. I am taking this opportunity to thank you for your regular essays. While I do not reply to every essays, I certainly read and appreciate them all. They make me think. All the best for 2021.

  4. Thank you Ted for your blogs during 2020 and all the best for 2021. Although I rarely comment on your articles, at times I can relate the subject matter to some of my life’s experiences, and I look forward to what “gems” you may offer in 2021.

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