Are the private lives of leading political figures our business?

Published date: 16 January 2014 |
Published by: Rhian Waller 
Read more articles by Rhian Waller  Email reporter


NO affairs, please - we're British.

The private life of French president Francois Hollande is under scrutiny, amid rumours of an alleged affair with an actress. But the French public, the president’s colleagues and the Press are treating the matter with something of a collective shrug.

In a current article the BBC asked: “Can you envisage how such a story might be covered in Britain if David Cameron were caught in similar circumstances?”

The answer to the rhetorical question would undoubtedly be: “In great and sometimes excruciating detail.”

So why do attitudes differ so much on either side of the English Channel, and are we nosier now than we used to be on the private lives of public figures?

David Atkinson, a freelance journalist, said there was some logic behind it.

The writer, who teaches at Glyndwr University in Wrexham, said: “I’d suggest the media in this country has a proud tradition of holding public figures, particularly politicians, to account for their behaviour.

“I can understand why people would cast doubts on the integrity of a leading political figure if they are unable to account for their actions in their private lives.”

The UK has had its fair share of political scandals. The Profumo Affair in 1963 still holds a degree of fascination. John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War, had an affair with Christine Keeler, supposedly the mistress of an alleged Soviet spy.

In 2002, Edwina Currie revealed she had a long-standing affair with John Major before he became Prime Minister in 1990.

Wales has not been immune to scandal. In 2003, then AM Ron Davies stood down following allegations of illicit gay sex near Bath – he claimed he was badger-watching.

Things have changed since then.

Mr Atkinson said: “I suppose now we have live 24-hour news coverage and we live in a world where social media whips stories up into a huge Twitter storm. They tend to explode like a supernova and die down again within a few days, when the next talking point comes along.

“They tend to fade very quickly, I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not.”

But is it any of our business what goes on behind closed doors? The Profumo scandal had national security ramifications but the Currie/Major affair was not illegal.

Rodney Playford, lecturer in history and politics at Glyndwr University, says something in our cultural make-up predisposes us to judge in a way our continental cousins do not.

He said: “In France the view taken is it’s up to the individual. The two previous presidents have admitted to affairs and it doesn’t really have too much of an effect.

“France is not alone. Take [former Italian Prime Minister] Silvio Berlusconi and his numerous indiscretions. It’s almost seen as a sign of being a man – people related to it. He was elected three times.”

In Britain, though, it’s a different story.

Mr Playford said: “It’s totally the opposite here. We are really the most prudish people in Europe. We like to think we’re liberal, but really we aren’t.”

He added: “The Americans are much more like us, which is why the Lewinsky scandal [where former US President Bill Clinton denied having an affair with Whitehouse intern Monica Lewinsky] was big news. He was impeached [after publically lying about the affair, on the grounds of perjury and obstruction of justice].”

Mr Playford argues we should have a more continental view of our politicians’ private lives, adding Profumu became respected for doing social work in later years.

He said: “Politics is about judgement, but having an affair doesn’t mean you can’t do the job. If one of my colleagues was to have an affair, no one would assume they wouldn’t be able to lecture.”

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