This House believes that rumours about politicians should not be reported

The case: The Mexican journalist and the "alcoholic" president

Mexican journalist Carmen Aristegui was fired for publicly calling on President Felipe Calderón to clarify rumours that he suffered from alcoholism, writes Felipe Correa. 

In February 2011, the well-known Mexican journalist, Carmen Aristegui, was dismissed for violating broadcasting company MVS Multivisión’s ethical code. It was alleged that Aristegui disseminated rumours as news. During her radio programme she reported that deputies from the opposition party unfurled a banner inside the Mexican Congress that said: “Would you let a drunk drive your car? Of course not! So why do you let one run the country?” Members of the governing party decided to leave the plenary hall in protest against the insult to the president.

After the report, Aristegui said there was no evidence to confirm whether President Felipe Calderón did have problems with alcohol. However, she emphasised that it was a delicate topic that needed formal clarification. “This deserves a serious, formal, and official response from the presidency of the republic,” she said. Aristegui added that in democracies around the world, the well-being of heads of states was in the public interest.

Two days after this event, MVS broadcast a formal message dismissing Aristegui on air. Her dismissal sparked a lively debate on social media networks and the media. Two weeks later, MVS revoked the dismissal, stating that Aristegui’s programme would continue and the case would be subjected to an arbitration process to settle the dispute. After that Aristegui continued working for MVS and remains conducting the show nowadays.

Author opinion

This case reminds me of one occurred in 2004, when a New York Times journalist, Larry Rohter, wrote a story about Lula da Silva, the president of Brazil at that time. In this story, Rohter alleged that Lula had problems with alcoholism. In response, Lula tried to expel Rohter from the country.

Allegations that politicians have problems with alcohol are common but rarely evidence-based, leading often to libel. However, in the case that occurred in Mexico it seems to me that the journalist was just commenting on an act that happened in the Mexican Congress, and asking for clarification from the president. Commenting on an event occurring in Congress is different from claiming something in an investigative story. In the case of Rother, he did not report an event. He did an investigation and wrote a story insinuating (giving no evidences, but rumours) that the Brazilian president suffered from alcoholism. In the case of Aristegui, it is clear to me that it was not defamation and she shouldn’t have been dismissed

- Felipe Correa 

Read the Mexican journalist and the "alcoholic" president and other similar cases on Free Speech Debate

Debaters’ Note

This is one specific example of a very common type of debate referred to as ‘public figures / private lives’. It is also a huge issue in discussions about freedom of speech and the independence of the press. If a politician is an alcoholic, or having an affair, or is gay, or takes drugs or a million other things does the public have any right to know? More to the point in this case, if it is just gossip is there a public interest in it being more widely known that such gossip is taking place in political and journalistic circles?

Usually the issue comes down to whether;

A)    The politician is being a hypocrite – backing homophobic legislation while at the same time living with a gay partner.

B)    The issue is affecting the politician’s performance at work – missing meetings because she is drunk or hungover.

C)    There is a possibility that the politician could be threatened with the release of the information – either though blackmail or internal political horse-trading. It’s worth noting, the allegation doesn’t really need to be true for this to be a threat.

D)    Finally, can the journalist prove that there is a matter of public interest. Remember that the public interest is something much more than the public just being curious about a scandal – it means that there is a provable reason for revealing the information.

In the light of this, these arguments have been kept deliberately broad but are set within the confines of the case set out above.

Title 
The journalist in question failed to produce any evidence that this affected Calderón’s job performance.
Point 

There is no public interest issue here, otherwise that would have been the main thrust of the story, moreover other news media would have picked up on the story as well. Instead this is a simple case of intrusion into a public figure’s private life, apparently for no reason other than it being a fairly easy story. This is exactly the kind of story that a reasonable distinction between public and private issues is meant to avoid. There is was evidence of alcoholism by President Calderon presented by the banner waving opposition[i] so a good journalist should have either found evidence as  if it was affecting Calderon’s ability to govern then there would be evidence that could be found or else she should have dropped the story rather than reporting rumour and insinuation.

The fact that by doing so she endangered not only her own reputation with the president’s office but that of the show and the company clearly makes it a disciplinary matter. Intruding on anyone’s private life unnecessarily is unpleasant invading the privacy of a figure with whom one is likely to need to work in the future is professional stupidity.

On both of these grounds, this particular intrusion was unnecessary. This has nothing to do with Aristegui’s freedom of speech and everything to do with Calderón’s right to privacy[ii].

[i] Booth, William, ‘Respected Mexican journalist fired for addressing Calderon drinking rumor’, Washington Post, 11 February 2011

[ii] Fox news website. Mexican president denies rumoured drinking problems. 10 February 2011.

Counterpoint 

It has to be accepted that a person accepts a certain loss of privacy when they stand for office. Beyond that, the issue at stake here is not whether this is good or bad journalism but whether it is journalism. By any reasonable definition a protest staged by leading members of the national legislature and concerning the character of the president would seem to qualify. As Aristegui herself argues “The health status and degree of equilibrium of a president is a matter of clear public interest.” [i]

[i] Booth, William, ‘Respected Mexican journalist fired for addressing Calderon drinking rumor’, Washington Post, 11 February 2011

Title 
Aristegui was fairly obviously played by the opposition; she should not have provided the coverage they desired.
Point 

Opposition parties in every democracy in the world produce stories or actions calling on those in power to do or say something ridiculous or making unfounded allegations just to get some coverage and damage their opponent’s credibility. Viewers and readers expect journalist to use their professional judgement in choosing where to give real stories the oxygen of publicity and when to ignore something as a publicity stunt.  Unfurling banners in parliament is clearly the latter.

As a result journalists are able to present their audience with something they have good reason to believe is true. Instead Aristegui, effectively, came up with “well, some people said these, it might be true, it might not, someone should find out.” That ‘someone’ should have been her.

An equivalent would be the difference between sharing some gossip about someone at work with a colleague and sending a memo about it to that person’s boss[i].

By mentioning this at all on air, the rumour is given credibility that it did not deserve and the President’s reputation was unfairly sullied.

[i] William Booth (Washington Post). Mexico buzzes over Calderon’s alleged drinking. Printed in the San Francisco Chronicle. 12 February 2011.

Counterpoint 

Let us say, for the sake of argument that the opposition had tabled a motion of impeachment – which would have even less impact in the long run. Would it still be inappropriate to report? What if the allegation were corruption, a partisan approach in Mexico’s interminable and bloody drug wars? Would it still not be correct to report it?

Clearly something which is widely discussed in political circles and, if true, would have grave implications for the political direction of the country should be reported. Aristegui did so with all of the tact and professionalism available.

Title 
Alcoholism is a disease, if the story was that the president had measles, it wouldn’t have got a mention.
Point 

Let’s take an historical example of the ‘well-being of the head or state’ in ‘democracies around the world’. A majority of US citizens were unaware that FDR was wheel chair bound – even after his death.[i] The fact the Churchill hit the bottle early in the morning was never mentioned to voters in the UK, even at their “darkest hour”, and still remains a matter of debate.[ii] The French have long ignored the streams of mistresses wandering in and out of the Élysée Palace throughout the history of the Fifth Republic.[iii]

All of these things were well known by the journalists of their time but there was no need for the story to be revealed. The allegation of the opposition was that Calderón was a drunk, this then became a suggestion that he was an alcoholic – they’re different things. This rather suggests that now research at all was undertaken into the allegation but that a slur was repeated as though it were news.

Because of popular confusion between the two, it was repeated, presumably, because it was salacious. Hardly the highest standards of journalism[iv].

[i] Anderson, Stacy, ‘FDR made 'tacit agreement' with public about disability’, The University Record Online

[ii] Richards, Michael, ‘Alcohol Abuser’, The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Churchill War Rooms, London, 19 January 2009

[iii] Rocco, Fiammetta, ‘Widows in weeds, mourning mistresses - plus ca change to the French’, The Independent, 14 January 1996

[iv] UK National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Code of Conduct. The NUJ code is widely seen by British journalists as the final word on journalistic ethics. It is also widely ignored in practice.

Counterpoint 

The three examples prop cites come from a quite different period in history. President Sarkozy’s personal life, in contrast to his predecessors, received massive scrutiny in the domestic and international press.

Furthermore, alcoholism is a rather different case to measles if, as has been alleged online, Calderón has been drunk to the point of incapacitation at official functions, that impacts on the image of Mexico in the world. This can be shown by the laughing stock that Boris Yeltsin became around the world.[i] It should also be noted that the President having a relatively minor ailment may have been an issue as his secretary highlighted in response to the allegations "During the four years of his administration, he has never missed any event because of health problems".[ii]

[i] BBC News, ‘Boris Yeltsin: Master of surprise’, 31 December 1999

[ii] Booth, William, ‘Respected Mexican journalist fired for addressing Calderon drinking rumor’, Washington Post, 11 February 2011

Title 
The protest by the opposition was a news story in its own right.
Point 

A protest by opposition members of parliament alleging behaviour unbecoming of the office of president is clearly a news story. They have the right to say it – and the media should report it as just that; a claim made by the opposition. A protest with a large banner unfurled would make the news in almost any country.

The British journalist Jeremy Paxman confronted newly elected Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy over his drinking. Much of the media feigned outrage over the action right the way up until he was dumped by his party – as a result of drinking too much.[i]

There is a myth that it’s okay for a privileged few within the professional elites of politics and journalism to know these details about leading politicians but their constituents, the people who ultimately employ them and whose lives they control should be left in the dark that their representative is an addict.

Most people wouldn’t hire a plumber who was known to have a drink problem, why should they be expected to hire a parliamentarian or president in the same situation.

[i] Campbell, Menzies, ‘How drink destroyed Charles Kennedy, by Menzies Campbell’, 14 February 2008

Counterpoint 

It’s not a news story, it’s a stunt. A news story would have required the journalist in question to do some work and either substantiate their claims or disprove them. Either could be done by finding evidence of wrongdoing by the president or skulduggery by the legislators. For example “Opposition resort to baseless claim in political fights” would also be a significant story if it were backed up with evidence.

As the story was presented, it was just speculation put in the national media in the full knowledge that mud gets stickier and dirtier the less material it has inside it[i].

The point about the Paxman incident, as was later demonstrated, is that it was true – and the journalist in question knew it and could prove it.

[i] Guillermo Gustavo Pérez Lara. El president Felipe Calderón, el alcohol y sus secuelas. Suite 101: Política y Sociedad. 8 February 2011.

Title 
The job of the reporter is to report the news not to decide what is news and what isn’t.
Point 

Any political reporter has a duty, first and foremost, to report on the issues being discussed by political leaders on all sides. The whole point of a democracy is that the people get to chose what and who they believe. The electorate in many countries have proven themselves remarkably willing to turn a blind eye to the peccadilloes of politicians as long as unemployment is low, wages are on the rise and housing is affordable. So for example the electorate ignored Tony Blair’s daliances with the property market and famously Bill Clinton was reelected despite already being plagued by scandals and reached his highest approval ratings after the Lewinski scandal.[i]

However, others will make decisions on the basis of the perceived character of the candidate or elected official[ii]. Many politicians are keen for the virtuous aspects of their private lives – families, personal achievements, sportsmanlike activities – to be shared with a usually uninterested public, it seems only reasonable that their inner demons should enjoy the same publicity has the angels on their shoulders.

Aristegui was doing her job to the letter – reporting the issues exercising the political class of the day and leaving it to the voters to decide what mattered to them and what did not.

[i] ‘Poll: Clinton’s approval rating up in wake of impeachment’, CNN.com, 20 December 1998

[ii] Matthew D’Ancona. Politics in this age of austerity will be a contest of character. The Daily Telegraph. 12 May 2012.

Counterpoint 

This is simply untrue; journalists decide what counts as news all the time. It’s called professional judgement. Indeed, it’s what they’re paid to do – sift through what is idle gossip and speculation and discover what is both true and relevant. That’s why we trust newspapers and broadcasters of record and have less time for scandal-sheets.

In this incident, the reporter didn’t just say that a protest had happened, she gave it credibility by commenting on it, despite the fact that she had no proof.

Title 
Even accusations affects reputations and therefore ability to do the job
Point 

Even if this were only gossip, the fact that the perception existed that the president was an alcoholic would affect how other politicians interacted with him – it is, therefore, a matter for public concern.[i] National leaders are left politically weakened by plenty of things that aren’t true. They are further undermined by things that are true but apparently trivial if they are kept secret. If that is actually what members of congress believe then it will affect their interaction with the president. By contrast, if that is not what they truly believe, then it speaks a great deal to their character that they are willing to resort to the politics of the gutter. Either way Mexicans have a reasonable right to know that the argument is going on.

Aristegui did just that. It is far more worrying that a news organization would even consider dismissing her for doing her job – presumably because it inconvenienced or embarrassed someone powerful[ii].

[i] Seymour-Ure, Colin, ‘Rumour and politics’, Politics, Vol.17, No.2, 1982, pp.1-9

[ii] Kate Katharine Ferguson. Column: Politicians’ private lives make a difference. We should pay attention. Thejournal.ie. 1 August 2012.

Counterpoint 

All political hothouses are rife with gossip – usually directed upwards. It’s usually not given credence by being repeated by an experienced journalist who should know better. Perhaps she was having a bad day, perhaps it was a momentary lapse of judgement, perhaps there was just nothing else happening that day but it was a pretty foolish thing to say on national television and tarnished both her reputation and that of Calderón. 

Bibliography 

Correa, Felipe, ‘The Mexican journalist and the “alcoholic” president’, Free Speech Debate, 14 March 2012, http://freespeechdebate.com/en/case/the-mexican-journalist-the-alcoholic-president/

 

Anderson, Stacy, ‘FDR made 'tacit agreement' with public about disability’, The University Record Online, http://www.ur.umich.edu/0304/Oct27_03/19.shtml

BBC News, ‘Boris Yeltsin: Master of surprise’, 31 December 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/341959.stm

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Campbell, Menzies, ‘How drink destroyed Charles Kennedy, by Menzies Campbell’, 14 February 2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-517736/How-drink-destroyed-Charles-Kennedy-Menzies-Campbell.html

CNN.com, ‘Poll: Clinton’s approval rating up in wake of impeachment’, 20 December 1998, http://edition.cnn.com/ALLPOLITICS/stories/1998/12/20/impeachment.poll/

D’Ancona, Matthew, ‘Politics in this age of austerity will be a contest of character’. The Daily Telegraph. 12 May 2012. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/leveson-inquiry/9260814/Politics-in-this-age-of-austerity-will-be-a-contest-of-character.html

Ferguson, Kate Katharine, ‘ Politicians’ private lives make a difference. We should pay attention’. Thejournal.ie. 1 August 2012. http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/politicians-private-lives-535257-Aug2012/

Fox news website. ‘Mexican president denies rumoured drinking problem’. 10 February 2011. http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/politics/2011/02/10/mexican-president-denies-rumored-drinking-problem/

Lara, Guillermo Gustavo Pérez, ‘El president Felipe Calderón, el alcohol y sus secuelas’. Suite 101: Política y Sociedad. 8 February 2011. http://suite101.net/article/el-presidente-felipe-calderon-el-alcohol-y-sus-secuelas-a38916

National Union of Journalists, ‘Code of Conduct’, 2011, http://media.gn.apc.org/nujcode.html

Richards, Michael, ‘Alcohol Abuser’, The Churchill Centre and Museum at the Churchill War Rooms, London, 19 January 2009, http://www.winstonchurchill.org/learn/myths/myths/he-was-an-alcohol-abuser

Rocco, Fiammetta, ‘Widows in weeds, mourning mistresses - plus ca change to the French’, The Independent, 14 January 1996, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/widows-in-weeds-mourning-mistresses--plus-ca-change-to-the-french-1323906.html

Seymour-Ure, Colin, ‘Rumour and politics’, Politics, Vol.17, No.2, 1982, pp.1-9, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00323268208401848

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