Leading article: Are private lives now the junk food of politics?

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The Independent Culture
TOMORROW, AMERICA votes, and what should be a feast of democracy is likely to be a rather meagre helping of junk food. There are no burning national issues, so turn-out will be low and what are questions of conscience here, such as abortion, sex and the death penalty, have become front-line policy differences. And, probably more than ever before, the personal ethics of individual candidates have been tested in the campaign. What is interesting, though, is that American public opinion is highly selective about this, and has, by and large, refused to be distracted by the extraordinary media obsession with the extra-curricular activities of the President himself. In these mid-term elections, Monica Lewinsky has been the siren that did not wail. Either because the voters take the view that their local congressional representative should not be held responsible for Bill Clinton's personal conduct, or because they knew when they elected him that their President was not very good at marital fidelity.

This is a question of some relevance to British politics too. Over here, Ron Davies's nocturnal rambles have unexpectedly re-opened the question of whether politicians really do have private lives, as President Clinton plaintively tried to claim, or whether any such possibility has been sold to the highest tabloid bidder in bogus search for the "character issue".

Mr Davies's fall has had a number of side consequences. One is the stripping away of another layer of innocence from the Blair Government, which slides one more notch from "Assembly of Saints" to "Just Another Bunch of Politicians". Another is to demonstrate how laughably out of touch is the BBC system of internal checks and balances by its attempting - retrospectively - to censor what studio guests may or may not say about the sexuality of government ministers.

But the real question is: Which of us is more guilty of hypocrisy, politicians, journalists or the electorate, who have a relative free choice in the consumption of the products of the first two groups? The politicians have learnt a lot from America, not just in terms of modern polling, but in the use of what Americans call "biography" to sell candidates. That has meant a little too much emphasis on Blair the Family Man. One of the most striking memos quoted in the book published last week by Philip Gould, the Prime Minister's pollster, is one written by Mr Blair himself in his campaign for the Labour leadership in 1994. In it, he described his own marketing strategy in note form: "Strong convictions based around Christian socialism... family; more to life than politics..."

But none of this justifies journalists' intrusion into politicians' private lives and all the signs are that, although the general public eagerly read all about Ron Davies and the "outing" of other ministers, they are perfectly capable of separating the public performance of politicians from their private foibles.

One of the potential weaknesses of this Government, though, is that has a tendency to confuse "the people's priorities" with those of the journalists on whom it relies to communicate. It might have been better, for instance, if the Prime Minister's press secretary had not stoked the fire of the Davies affair by expressing to journalists his exasperation with the fact that the former Welsh Secretary had not been entirely open with him and Mr Blair.

Equally, Alastair Campbell should not have been quite so emphatic in rejecting the idea of some further legal protection of the privacy of public figures when Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, suggested such a course last year in relation to the break-up of Robin Cook's marriage.

New rules are needed for this new politics in which politicians have their personal character pushed into the foreground and yet are still entitled to some privacy. It would be difficult for the Government to propose legislation without being accused of protecting its own, but it should at least attempt to draw a line - which voters will accept - between what does and does not affect someone's capacity for public service.