Be lenient with the powerful

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The Independent Online
The swift downfall of another public figure in the wake of revelations in a Sunday newspaper has brought the usual cries of foul play from the press. There are even suggestions that it may, in the future, be harder to persuade able people to accept any public office.

Instead of bemoaning the intrusions of tabloids and the distress inflicted on innocent families unexpectedly caught in storms not of their own making, we should recognise that newspapers print stories they believe their readers want to read. The media responds to market forces as does every other industry.

Legislation to limit what can be reported is a popular remedy. But even its supporters concede that the problem of deciding which stories could be reported in the public interest, and which could not, is considerable. Even if a definition were to be agreed, grave difficulties of enforcement remain.

The endless prurience of the public is a fact of modern life, however much some people may condemn it, and newspapers will continue to pander to it. The sensible reaction to the resignation of Rupert Pennant-Rea is to define more rationally how the fitness of any person for a particular post can be assessed.

The criteria by which bankers are judged should be different from those for bishops and different again from those for politicians. In the case of bankers, sound judgement, competence and financial integrity are what are needed, as the bond-holders who have lost money in Barings can testify.

A more rational climate, in which scandalous revelations about the private lives of senior bankers are regarded more as entertainment rather than as grounds for dismissal, would be good for the health of the banking system and might help the country, too.

Fears that able people will be deterred by the threat of media scrutiny from entering public life are groundless. It is still an immense privilege to hold high public office. Men and women continue to be attracted to it in spite of low pay, unsocial hours and the often excessive workload. This is because the jobs are important and the decisions to be taken of real significance. The notion of service in the public interest is still alive, and many people will offer themselves for positions of responsibility despite the obvious drawbacks.

Human failings of the famous have always exercised a special fascination for outsiders. Instead of attempting to deny those outsiders opportunities to peer in at the lives of others, it is time to acknowledge that in many professions, standards of behaviour in private life should not be relied on exclusively as a guide to professional competence or integrity.

A little common sense about the ways of the world and tolerance of the frailties of fellow human beings would reduce this problem to less fearful proportions. It would also remove the need for legislation.

Tim Yeo, the Conservative MP for Suffolk South, is a former Minister of State for the Environment.

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