At one time or another, everyone performs a role. At school, our teachers lead us out into the streets and told us that we represent the school and should be on our best behaviour. As we grow up, that situation is replayed.
The characters may change, but the principle remains the same. When we represent people, they have expectations of us. As long as we wear their badge, our behaviour has consequences for them.
The position of politicians, with their private lives under scrutiny, is only as unusual as the responsibility they have undertaken. An MP’s jersey is multicoloured: it carries their constituents’ stripes and their party’s. If they reach the cabinet, they get 65 million tiny chevrons on their sleeves – one for every citizen.
What then could indicate ineptitude or infidelity? With that question in mind, it’s a little easier to see through the media’s attempts to pry into politicians’ pasts and private lives.
For example, it may seem distinctly unfair for journalists to trawl through the detritus of a politician’s historical online activity.
But in the case of politicians, nuances of character can make or break credibility.
The case of Jared O’Mara is a good example of the constructive contribution that the news media can make by revealing the relevant elements of politicians’ private lives.
His misogynistic online comments cast doubt on his sense of equal responsibility for all voters regardless of gender, and on his commitment to the Women and Equalities Committee.
The interests of certain sections of the electorate rest on the requirement that politicians should not hold the attitudes he displayed, and that requirement can only be imposed through the removal of politicians who fall short. Only by such means can the public interest be maximised.
There is a kind of prying that does seem unfair. The news media faces no greater incentive to unearth and publish the role-relevant misdemeanours of politicians’ pasts than to reveal irrelevantly shocking or sensational stories from their private lives.
To act to achieve the latter is problematic, but we can usually identify the line at which public interest and media influence be- come problematically merged.
The social role of the media in this case was to fill the gaps left by the normal party vetting process. That’s a part which will be useful in other cases too, and one it will naturally play as it avidly seeks stories. It will serve the public good as far as it does so. When it oversteps the boundary of political relevance, however, it will treat politicians unfairly and muddy the waters of electoral freedom.