By Mark Oaten, the Liberal Democrat MP for Winchester. He resigned as Lib Dem home affairs spokesman after his affair with a male prostitute was exposed by the News of the World (THE GUARDIAN, 07/06/08):
You can probably guess why I took more than a passing interest in the news that Max Mosley faced down a vote of no confidence on Tuesday. What you think of his continued position in formula one probably depends on where you think the boundaries should be set for the private life of someone in the public eye. Unsurprisingly I welcome Tuesday’s decision – but I know a lot of people don’t.
It got me thinking about the whole privacy v public interest debate again. When is it justified to report on a celebrity’s personal life? By accepting positions that place us in the public eye, do we accept that we will find ourselves in the heat of the media spotlight? And what of the aftermath? I make no excuse for my actions or the role of the press in my withdrawal from frontbench life. I don’t think I am in a position to blame the press – and in many ways, strange as it may seem, the whole episode has left me stronger and more stable.
In my view the media can perform an important function in the democratic process, sometimes holding ministers and government to account more effectively than the elected opposition. The press exposes many scandals and issues that need to be brought into the open. True, the tabloids criticise “sins” they are guilty of themselves, but we need them in a healthy society. Their investigations and campaigns can yield results far more quickly than any government body or opposition member can.
If the media have made a few high-profile mistakes, pushed a few boundaries beyond acceptable levels, then that I suppose is the price to be paid for the sleaze and corruption they have unearthed. That’s why we have the Press Complaints Commission and laws that allow anyone to seek redress.
Having said all that, I don’t think a resignation and a ruined career should necessarily follow revelations about someone’s personal life. Far too often people clamber over themselves to call for heads to roll. This kind of kneejerk reaction is too much a part of public life, and is one reason I was pleased to hear of Mosley’s confidence vote.
I think we can apply a simple three-point test.
1) Has the person broken the law? If this has happened, a person’s position is untenable.
2) Is the individual guilty of hypocrisy? If someone preaches against a certain act or way of life, and is caught doing the same thing, it’s hard to have much sympathy. Look at Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor. Calls for his resignation following his involvement with prostitutes are more justified when we consider his campaigning against prostitution.
3) Do the individual’s actions invite blackmail or show a total lack of judgment? This is the hardest question to answer because it’s more subjective than the others. I recognise in my case I made a grave error of judgment which is why I resigned. But to be honest I was so shattered by the whole experience that the thought of continuing didn’t appeal.
Privacy is a fluid concept. The boundaries of what constitutes private space and who deserves it are constantly being redrawn. But I think we should just face facts – people like a good read about the mistakes of public figures, and newspapers want to sell more copies.
I am not in favour of a privacy law – which would impinge upon the freedom of the press – but all I would ask is that papers stick to the facts, ignoring gossip and intrigue, and we keep a level head. If we can maintain balance and perspective, avoid kneejerk reactions and keep the three points above in mind, we may see less people out of a job.