Friday, 7 January 2011

the politics of privacy

IT's hard to decide what's most painful about this blogpost from the MP Nadine Dorries. Is it the public labelling of her new boyfriend's ex-wife as an alcoholic, and (alleged) bad mother to boot?
Or the decision to let his daughter post something about her mother that, one day, she might live to regret? Or just the fact that it will surely be open season on all of them in tomorrow's papers, with editors doubtless arguing that the children of both parties are now fair game?
But I have a nagging feeling that it's too simple just to blame Dorries for this mess. She crossed the line: but she's part of a political and media culture in which that's now too easy, and as a journalist it makes me uncomfortable.
It's not that she posted this in response to a newspaper story brewing about her relationship. You may or may not feel there is public interest in her love life, but many MPs endure such interest without going this nuclear.
It's more that she is in politics at a time when there is no such thing as too much information, from the mysterious 'contraceptive equipment' Cherie Blair didn't want to take to Balmoral to Nick Clegg's 30 previous lovers (or not quite, as the case may be).
We demand to know exactly why Ed Miliband hasn't married his partner, or precisely how Gordon Brown felt about the death of his firstborn child (as if you couldn't imagine). We think there's something wrong with politicians who won't play the game (see how po-faced Yvette Cooper is made to sound in this interview for not wanting to discuss her kids). We rely too much on intimate personal information to judge our leaders' characters - and not enough on ideas, which might tell us about their values.
And I'm as guilty as anyone. I have sat glazed-eyed through interviews with Cabinet Ministers chuntering on about white papers and almost wept with relief when they finally offer some kind of personal anecdote to illustrate it: ha, something I know the news desk will like! (And I worked for a broadsheet).
Human interest stories are naturally easier to digest than dry policy, and private life is sometimes highly relevant to public confidence: think of the minister who sacks his diary secretary to install his mistress in the job, say. But we are reaching the stage where ideas alone aren't enough for politicians to offer. And suddenly the kind of casual invasiveness Dorries demonstrates here can start to seem weirdly normal.
It's partly about the celebritisation of politics, partly about the way blogging and Facebooking gradually chips away at MPs' inhibitions, and partly a legacy of the expenses leaks.
We now know exactly where they bought their loobrushes at our expense: not much mystique there. And many MPs are so desperate to show they have nothing to hide that they're confused about where exactly to stop (think David Laws having to out himself as gay following stories about his expense claims on a house shared with his lover). It's perhaps relevant that details of Dorries's private life have been used by opponents to challenge her expenses claims in the past.
The caravan will move on from Dorries. But the uncomfortable question remains: where to draw the line on what we really want, or need, to know?


  1. You write that as a journalist.

    Speaking as an out and proud non-journalist, I honestly don't think I know anybody who gives a damn about policitians' private lives PROVIDED THAT those politicians are not criminals, liars or hypocrites in the process.

    I don't believe that "we demand to know exactly why Ed Miliband hasn't married his partner, or precisely how Gordon Brown felt about the death of his firstborn child", etc. I respectfully suggest that it is a journalistic myth that we, the people, "demand" this.

    Human beings are curious about other human beings, certainly, and of course gossips exist but do you really know many non-journalists/non-'celebrities' of our age (or younger) whose response to 'Politician Has Affair Shock Horror' or 'Politician Is Gay Revelation' would be anything other than, "Oh, right. Are you having another drink or not?"

    David Laws did not have to resign because he's gay; he had to resign because he'd massaged the expenses system by lying about his personal circumstances. As his lie concerned his sexuality it was inevitably newsworthy (and I dare say some hacks were happy to out him), but it was the expenses angle that saw his political career off. If he'd simply claimed what he was entitled to claim he'd still be in the Cabinet doing Gideon Osborne's dirty work for him.

    A Tory MP came out as gay a couple of weeks ago. The world shrugged its collective shoulders and got on with its collective life. Nobody cared because that MP is not a rent-a-gob: of course he's a public figure as an MP but he seems to have made an effort over his 19 years in the gig to live out that public life in just about the lowest key possible.

    Journalists had just as many column inches and airtime to fill a couple of weeks ago as they do today. The reason why journalists believe Dorries' affair is more newsworthy is because Dorries has, in her five years in the gig, made every effort to appear in the media for self-promotion purposes as often as her limited talents allow.

    She's decided that one part of her media persona is based on her religion and that another part is based on a willingness/desire to attack other people (Commons Speakers, disabled constituents, critical bloggers, addicts - it seems nobody's off limits to Nadine).

    The decision as to what is and isn't "news" is taken in editorial conferences by journalists. Those journalists think they know what people want to read/watch but, with the best will in the world, newspaper circulation figures and broadcast news audiences have been in free fall for 15-20 years (save for short periods when genuinely major stories occur).

    To try to stem the flow, journalists give the people what journalists think the people want. But the dumber the news gets, the fewer people read and watch. It's a self-perpetuating spiral of decline.

    Meanwhile, one of the consequences is that this weekend we'll have to wade through more of Dorries' bile and spite as we try to get to some proper news, the crossword, the sports section, the book reviews and the TV listings - which, after all, are why most of us buy the weekend papers.

  2. It's just another sad personal story of which there are millions in the world, it just happens to be being played out in public as it involves an MP.

    However, I think I should note the following which strikes me as prejudging things.

    "Or the decision to let his daughter post something about her mother that, one day, she might live to regret?"

    Since when does a father have to give a 25 year old daughter to publish anything? I think it somewhat patronising to assume that she's incapable of making her own decisions. Whether she regrets them or not later in life is he concern.

  3. some really interesting points here. jonathan, you are right that often journalists wrongly assume they know what readers want. there are plenty of readers who prefer their politics without personal fluff, tho not sure they are in the majority. not sure if you caught Ed Miliband's interview with Jeremy vine but questions from public calling in included why isn't he married, why did he do over his brother, etc.
    i can only say that newspapers now are as intensively market researched, focus grouped and analysed as any other consumer product (more so since digitalisation meant you could count every click on every article and reliably know what's most read) and that there's a commercial reason for the trend we're discussing here - although as i make clear it's not just about what mainstream media does: it's also about the PR advice given to politicians (Alastair Campbell's diaries are interesting on this), the confessional effects of social media and after-effects of expenses. declining newspaper sales is one on which i could bore for hours but i think mostly due to other factors mainly, eg plurality of news sources, changing habits & changing demographics. also a generational caveat here: most people my age (late 30s) don't give a stuff about politicians' private lives but that is not necessarily true of older voters.
    steve, of course a 25-year-old doesn't need permission to publish but i think she deserves decent advice before providing a statement to the Daily Mail which makes her fair game to be doorstepped by half fleet street, an experience most mature adults don't enjoy. at the time of blogging i wasn't sure of her precise age but even knowing she's 25, it still worries me. sorry if you think it's patronising but i don't know a PR on the planet who would think it was a good idea.