This House believes politicians have no right to privacy

The right to privacy is enshrined in constitutions and law around the world. But what are its limits? Politicians, the elected representatives of the people often claim the right to privacy, but many suggest that the right should not apply to those who serve the people in public office. The debate centres around two broad issues: first, whether the right to privacy is sacrosanct for all, or whether citizens right to know who they are electing overrides it, and second, whether the elimination of politicians’ right to privacy would make them better at their jobs and improve governance generally.

This debate emerges from a context of scandals in the private lives of many public figures that have arisen over the years. While some have to do with secondary aspects of private conduct, such as religious opinion, most that draw attention focus on sex scandals of various sorts. The most famous, and one that will be considered in the debate, is the case of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinski.[1] Another more contemporary example is the Petraeus sex scandal.[2] All of these personal misdeeds have exploded onto the public sphere and had significant impact on politicians’ careers and lives.

The following arguments seek to lay out the major branches of thought put forward by both sides in this age-old debate. In doing so it generally takes politicians to mean elected representatives, though the logic of most of the arguments applies to appointed posts in public service. By “no right to privacy” this debate means to discuss an umbrella of transparency and public scrutiny measures that would serve to reveal most aspects of politicians’ private lives, as well as to give justification to the practice of journalists of actively delving into the private lives of public figures. Different boundaries may exist, and the level of public scrutiny could be justified to varying degrees, but for ease of understanding and clarity of two-sided debate, the loss of the right to privacy might be considered here as being entirely abrogated by politicians.

[1] Linder, Douglas O., “The Impeachment Trial of President William Clinton”, University of Missouri-Kansas School of Law, 2005, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/clinton/clintontrialaccount.html

[2] Klaidman, Daniel, and Sheehy, Gail, “David Petraeus Scandal: The Fall of a General”, Newsweek, 17 November 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/11/18/david-petraeus-scandal-the-fall-of-a-general.html

 

Title 
The right to privacy is not absolute and is sacrificed in standing for public office
Point 

A right such as that to privacy is not absolute. Rights are general statements of principle that are then caveated and curtailed in the interests of society. When an individual seeks elevation to public office, he or she must accept that the role is a special one in society. As the representative of the people, the politician is more than just the holder of a job appointed by the people, but is the elected servant, whose duty is to lead. Leadership includes leading by example as well as simply directing policy. It is a strange relationship, and it is one that demands the utmost confidence in the holder. But confidence can only be developed through increased scrutiny and transparency. This means understanding the private life of the politician, since it so often informs their public life. Thus, when citizens place their political power in the hands of an elected representative, they gain the reciprocal right over that representative to have his or her life and character laid bare for their approval. This is the only way true representativeness may be achieved.

Counterpoint 

Even if one concedes that such rights are not entirely sacrosanct, it is important to recognise that rights should apply universally and should still be defended. The right to privacy is also important, and must include politicians who, while fulfilling an important societal role, are not so special as to merit significant curtailment of rights. So long as politicians do their duty by representing the interests of those that elected them in a legislative framework, they are fulfilling their end of the covenant with the people, leaving no room for any nebulous additional right of citizens over politicians. They are elected to do a job not for their life.

Title 
Citizens have a right to know who is being elected to represent them
Point 

Beyond the discussion of the balancing of the right to privacy, it is important to understand the nature of representatives as stand-ins for the citizens who elect them. In other words, politicians are surrogates. Their duty is to represent the people in public life across all issues and policies.[1] Yet it is impossible to ascertain the desires of the citizens on all issues in the course of an election campaign. Even harder is to understand political decision-making in a context that had not existed at the time of the election. For example, if a war was to begin suddenly in a country that had not expected any conflict and had not elected representatives on the basis of how they stood on fighting this war. But that is exactly why politicians are elected as much for who they are as what their avowed policy aims are. We elect politicians who we believe will act best under such changing conditions; the ‘3 am phone call’, how a candidate will react in a crisis, is often a major issue in U.S. Presidential elections and temperament is often the only way to judge this.[2] Mitt Romney as candidate in the 2012 election was widely considered to have lost out to Obama on this measure.[3] Understanding the personal lives of politicians allows voters to elect one who best represents them in the sense of being able to act in their place in a changing world. Thus it is critical for the good electoral decision-making that the right to privacy of politicians be infringed.

[1] Hughs, J. “Does the Public Really Have the Right to Know About Politicians’ Private Lives”. University of Phoenix Online. 27 June 2011, http://www.phoenix.edu/colleges_divisions/humanities/articles/2011/06/does-the-public-really-have-the-right-to-know-about-politicians-private-lives.html

[2] Fallows, James, “Mitt Romney Drops His 3 a.m. Phone Call”, the Atlantic, 12 September 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/mitt-romney-drops-his-3-am-phone-call/262285/

[3] Drum, Kevin, “Obama Wins the 3 a.m. Phone Call Test”, Mother Jones, 14 October 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/10/obama-wins-3-am-phone-call-test

Counterpoint 

Politicians are not true stand-ins. They represent the interests of the people on a policy basis not on the basis of their personal lives. Trying to divine personalities in politicians inevitably results in misallocation of the limited resources of time and energy people can generally spend informing themselves about candidates. Rather, the focus of voters should be drawn to the issues, which is where true policy comes from. Of course temperament and actions in one’s private life may be an indicator to how the politician will react but their ideology and policy positions are likely to be a much more certain indicator. Focus on private lives only obscures the truth of policies and reduces the quality of representation as a result.

Title 
Heavy scrutiny forces politicians to dedicate themselves fully to their public service
Point 

When politicians see themselves constantly under the lens of public scrutiny, they are essentially forced to dedicate themselves wholesale to their duties as representatives. They are disincentivized in the extreme to pursue any transgressive or hypocritical activities behind closed doors, resulting in more energy dedicated to legislating, and less to lining their pockets or chasing interns, since the added risk of being discovered increases the cost of trying to conceal their foibles.[1] Having a culture of scrutiny of politicians private lives will mean those who most see their work as a public service and so will be dedicated to it will be the ones who seek to become politicians. Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s lurid sex life has thrown light on the sexual misconduct rife in French politics and has actually sparked a major effort to reform the system and a change to a more demanding culture towards politicians.[2] Politicians are human, after all, and susceptible to the base human urges that power unchecked is wont to accommodate. A powerful probe into politicians’ private lives can only serve the cause of better governance.

[1] Hughs, J. “Does the Public Really Have the Right to Know About Politicians’ Private Lives”. University of Phoenix Online. 27 June 2011, http://www.phoenix.edu/colleges_divisions/humanities/articles/2011/06/does-the-public-really-have-the-right-to-know-about-politicians-private-lives.html

[2] Clifford, C. and Vandoorne, S. “Scandals Put a Spotlight on France’s Hidden Sexism, Privacy Laws”. CNN. 3 June 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/europe/06/03/france.sex.politics/index.html

Counterpoint 

All intense scrutiny will do is make fewer people be willing to enter politics. This does not mean the most capable will stay, only those with a higher tolerance for media intrusion, and those with a talent for concealment and spin. The result is not better governance, because the pool of potential leaders is reduced by the added pressures of losing all hope of privacy. Loss of the right privacy means worse governance.

Title 
Heavy scrutiny serves to challenge existing power structures
Point 

The power structures that command peoples’ lives are often difficult to identify. While there are usually multiple candidates to choose from at election time, in many polities they all tend to come out from small-based elite. Oxford and Cambridge, for example, serve as the incubators of power in the United Kingdom. They hold vastly disproportionate sway in composition of Parliament and other political posts, and tend to dominate the front benches of all the parties. What media scrutiny, particularly with the advent of new media, has served to be is a massive check on entrenched elites. They challenge them in their lofty offices and strike at their very hearts when they behave in ways inappropriate or hypocritical.[1] This scrutiny is often one of the only pure democratic powers available to ordinary people, even in a liberal democracy.

[1] Thompson, J. 2011. “Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life”. Theory Culture Society 28(4): 49-70.

Counterpoint 

The power structures that command people are best challenged through attention to policy and shaping the discourse in a positive manner. Attention to private lives is simply salacious and does nothing to actually forward the cause of groups outside the elite. In fact, focus on the foibles of the few serves only to confuse and misdirect public sentiment away from where it might do the most good in the furtherance of change. If anything deserves intense scrutiny it is the power structures themselves, such as Oxbridge in the United Kingdom, not on the individuals who are mere products of it.

Title 
All individuals have a legitimate right to privacy
Point 

Privacy is a fundamental human right that is universal, a right that should be defended for all citizens, including those who govern us.[1] What people get up to in their private lives is by and large their own business. People generally speaking have a basic respect for privacy. While some people may think their politicians owe them a special duty and thus have to give up certain privileges like privacy, the covenant between citizen and representative cannot be justified on such stringent grounds. A politician is effectively an employee of his constituents and the citizens of the polity. If this was justification for scrutiny into the private lives of elected officials then why should it not also be justification for intrusion into the private lives of unelected civil servants? Both these groups are doing a job for the public, but undertraining this job does not give the public the authority to intrude into their privacy beyond questions about whether they are qualified for the job. The duty of an elected politician is not so special as to demand an abrogation of his or her ability to enjoy a private life. If a right is to have meaning, it must apply to everyone with a semblance of equality. Making politicians fair game for reporters only serves to undermine the rights all citizens enjoy.

[1] Privacy International. “Privacy as a Political Right”. Index on Censorship 2010 39(1): 58-68. https://www.privacyinternational.org/reports/privacy-as-a-political-right

Counterpoint 

Even if privacy is a fundamental human right, it is certainly not an absolute one. When the authorities have probable cause they can search the property, residence, and computers of suspects in pursuit of greater societal justice. Politicians are not simply doing a job for the electorate they are in a special position as the effective embodiment of the people’s will, and as a result the powers they wield, which is far vaster than that of any private agent, demands a higher level of scrutiny into their backgrounds, which means looking into their private lives. This is exactly the same as outside politics; the more senior and powerful the job the more rigorous the checking of the qualifications and background of the candidate must be.

Title 
Fixating on personal lives results in infringing the rights of more than just the politicians themselves
Point 

Politicians, like all people, are not islands. They have loved ones and families. When a citizen chooses to offer him or herself up as a candidate for office he or she takes on many responsibilities. However, the politician’s family can never be considered to have wholly consented to the arrangement, even if they support them in the election. They are in many ways innocent bystanders, yet when politicians are treated as having no freedom of privacy, their families too are stripped of that right unjustly.[1] Thus, the right to privacy is worth protecting for politicians even if it could be shown that they had no real personal right to such respect. Rights exist in part to protect innocent parties, and the families of politicians are innocent, and would undoubtedly be prime victims of limitless media intervention. The recent ads produced by the National Rifle Association that target President Obama’s daughters and their security detail has dragged girls who did not choose to be the president’s daughters into the spotlight.[2] Additionally, the fear of scrutiny of family might well have a serious chilling effect on anyone who might seek public office, resulting in a worse candidate pool, harming everyone.

[1] Privacy International. “Privacy as a Political Right”. Index on Censorship 2010 39(1): 58-68. https://www.privacyinternational.org/reports/privacy-as-a-political-right

[2] AFP, “White House slams NRA ad targeting Obama daughters”, Google News, 16 January 2013, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5htfEzGvkt7AQoOEG9wv9kbltsZxQ?docId=CNG.e0843333a301cd62e11c5aa64af78d26.511

Counterpoint 

While it is no doubt unfortunate that the innocent family members of politicians might feel unpleasant scrutiny, it remains essential to the promulgation of political accountability. Furthermore, it is valuable that citizens understand who their leaders are, and what kind of people they are, which necessitates knowing what kind of people they associate with in their private lives. Obviously, not all personal associations, such as biological family, may be chosen, but all the same those relationships can reveal much valuable information about the politician’s character. All of this is part of the trade-off politicians must accept if good, accountable government is to be achieved and maintained.

Title 
The private lives of politicians are a harmful distraction for the media
Point 

When the lives of politicians are fair game, they necessarily become a major target for journalists. Salacious gossip sells much better than more complicated stories about policy, so they are given pride of place. The result is the media wasting time and resources on pursuing stories that are ultimately generally useless in divining policy and progress in a society. The media is society’s watchdog, and its duty is to protect the people from untruths in policy and to shield them from wicked decisions. Focusing on the personal lives does nothing to serve the actual material interests of the people. Thus when the media reports on the private lives of politicians over the more meaty issues of the day, it abrogates its most fundamental duty to its citizens. The best example of this occurring is certainly the Lewinski affair in America. While it was deeply unfortunate that the president would use his power to solicit the sexual favours of an intern, the near maniacal fixation with which the media attended the story served to halt the process of government for many months. Bill Clinton spent much of his time and energy obfuscating and apologising for his private life, while the Congress dithered over who could be the most righteous in their opposition to the president.[1] The result was one of the most farcical standstills in the history of American governance. Absent the media reporting on this story and delving into the lives of those involved, America might well have been able to focus on the things that mattered.

[1] Gitlin, T. “The Clinton-Lewinsky Obsession: How the Press Made a Scandal of Itself”. The Washington Monthly. December 1998, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/1998/9812.gitlin.obsession.html

Counterpoint 

Even if the media occasionally distracts from more pressing issues, it does not make the issues attending politicians’ private lives entirely unimportant. The media can be admonished, as it was in the case of Lewinski, to stop getting overly fixated. As society’s watchdog, the media owes a duty to the people to provide as much information as possible, including information about their representatives’ private lives. Without that information they would never be able to adequately gauge who might best represent their interests.

Title 
The focus of politics and politicians should be on policy
Point 

Delving into the private lives of politicians does nothing to improve citizens’ understanding of who represents them except to show that a certain politician may have issues in his or her private life that is unsavoury, or slightly hypocritical. But that focus on hypocrisy is itself legislatively meaningless. If voters select a representative who then votes in accordance with their wishes, then he is doing his duty, irrespective of how he lives his own life. Thus when Newt Gingrich, for example, as Speaker of the House sought to increase federal recognitions and incentives towards stable, monogamous relationships, while at the same time leading an extramarital affair of his own, he was not acting in bad faith with the voters who backed him, but doing their will, which is the duty of a politician at base.[1] Furthermore, when personal lives are open to attack, candidates can focus their energies on denigrating their opponents instead of addressing the issues that matter. The result is worse elections, as voters are unable to distinguish candidates effectively on the basis of policy, but are rather pushed to make decisions on the basis of personal lives, which results in decision-making that is less thoroughly in their interest.

[1] Kurtz, K. “Legislatures and Citizens: Communication Between Representatives and their Constituents”. National Conference of State Legislatures. December 1997, http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/trust/communication-between-representatives-and-their-co.aspx

Counterpoint 

Politicians are not merely elected to enact policies as stated but to act as a surrogate for the views and values of the voters who elect them. That is why politicians are expected, and are considered legitimate in doing so, to legislate on issues not necessarily discussed on the campaign trail. It is the scrutiny of private lives that allows the public to know how a politician will represent their views with regards to questions that are not asked in the election. That is why it is essential to understand the private life and character of the representative. With regard to political attacks, voters are trusted to select leaders, and can reasonably be expected to make decisions in their genuine interests. Thus they can be expected to discern policy from the campaigns effectively only in the case of access to the candidates’ private lives will they now have additional information to make an even better decision.

Bibliography 

AFP, “White House slams NRA ad targeting Obama daughters”, Google News, 16 January 2013, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5htfEzGvkt7AQoOEG9wv9kbltsZxQ?docId=CNG.e0843333a301cd62e11c5aa64af78d26.511

Clifford, C. and Vandoorne, S. “Scandals Put a Spotlight on France’s Hidden Sexism, Privacy Laws”. CNN. 3 June 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/europe/06/03/france.sex.politics/index.html

Drum, Kevin, “Obama Wins the 3 a.m. Phone Call Test”, Mother Jones, 14 October 2012, http://www.motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2012/10/obama-wins-3-am-phone-call-test

Fallows, James, “Mitt Romney Drops His 3 a.m. Phone Call”, the Atlantic, 12 September 2012, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/mitt-romney-drops-his-3-am-phone-call/262285/

Gitlin, T. “The Clinton-Lewinsky Obsession: How the Press Made a Scandal of Itself”. The Washington Monthly. December 1998, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/1998/9812.gitlin.obsession.html

Hughs, J. “Does the Public Really Have the Right to Know About Politicians’ Private Lives”. University of Phoenix Online. 27 June 2011, http://www.phoenix.edu/colleges_divisions/humanities/articles/2011/06/does-the-public-really-have-the-right-to-know-about-politicians-private-lives.html

Klaidman, Daniel, and Sheehy, Gail, “David Petraeus Scandal: The Fall of a General”, Newsweek, 17 November 2012, http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/11/18/david-petraeus-scandal-the-fall-of-a-general.html

Kurtz, K. “Legislatures and Citizens: Communication Between Representatives and their Constituents”. National Conference of State Legislatures. December 1997, http://www.ncsl.org/legislatures-elections/trust/communication-between-representatives-and-their-co.aspx

Linder, Douglas O., “The Impeachment Trial of President William Clinton”, University of Missouri-Kansas School of Law, 2005, http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/clinton/clintontrialaccount.html

Privacy International. “Privacy as a Political Right”. Index on Censorship 2010 39(1): 58-68. https://www.privacyinternational.org/reports/privacy-as-a-political-right

Thompson, J. 2011. “Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life”. Theory Culture Society 28(4): 49-70.

X