Emily Moore asks how disgraced public figures should be treated.
Congressman Anthony Weiner has faced the consequences of having pressed “send” on his BlackBerry, mistakenly believing he was privately transmitting a photograph of his crotch to a 21-year-old student over Twitter. Facing hecklers at a raucous press conference last week he apologised to his pregnant wife and resigned.
Weiner’s is the latest of a spate of sordid sex scandals to erupt onto the front pages this year. He follows Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi whose trial started in April, coinciding with and somewhat marring Italy’s 150th anniversary celebrations. Berlusconi stands accused of paying for sex with an under-age prostitute on thirteen occasions and abuse of office by ordering police to release her from custody when she was arrested for stealing. International Monetary Fund chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn was arrested in May after allegedly locking a hotel maid in his suite at the Sofitel in Manhattan, attempting to rape her and then forcing her to perform a sex act on him. May also saw the termination of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 25 year marriage following the revelation that the former Mr Universe fathered a love-child. This month the Weiner Twitter story dominated headlines in the US, while on this side of the pond controversy engulfed Ryan Giggs as details of his numerous extramarital affairs, including a liaison with his sister-in-law, emerged despite his use of the contentious privacy injunction laws.
The recent slew highlights an interesting debate: how should figures with a high public profile engorged in sex scandals be treated?
The most egalitarian answer is that their status as high profile figures is irrelevant in the eyes of the law: if accused of a crime they should stand trial, if found guilty serve the judge’s sentence. The reality is far muddier. Should the sheer existence of a trial be a sufficiently damning indictment to force a resignation? What about the principle of innocent unless proven guilty? What of those who, like Weiner, have been caught out engaging in morally dubious activities but did not actually break any laws?
In such cases the paramount consideration should be whether the act affects the person’s ability to continue to perform their job. Weiner resigned under pressure from senior Democrat’s including Nancy Pelosi, Rep. Steve Israel and indirectly even Obama himself, who stated that if he had been caught up in such a scandal he would have resigned. They claimed that the media frenzy resulting from his activities complicated and could compromise the Democrat’s efforts to position themselves politically for the 2012 elections. Thus his actions negatively affected his ability to perform part of his job in representing the Democratic party, however ultimately in a case where no illegal action occurred, the decision to quit should have been between Weiner and his constituents, not party big wigs.
Personally, I would not want to vote for a candidate who holds such a derogative view of women, or is embroiled in morally questionable activities. This however raises the question of where the line between private life and professional life should be drawn. What does your vote endorse: a person, or their policies and skills? There are compelling arguments on both sides. If a politician’s behaviour in their private life reveals a fundamental lack of respect for half of his constituents (that Weiner’s was towards women is irrelevant; it would be just as bad if he displayed contemptuous behaviour towards any other group), it is likely that these attitudes permeate their professional activities and affect the decisions he or she is making on their behalf. Equally, if the constituents were happy with their professional performance prior to a scandal emerging, why should they change their allegiances as a result?
A second element contributed to Weiner’s resignation as he faced an ethics inquiry into whether he misused congressional resources and time. Some of the sex calls and emails he made were during office hours using congressional computers and telephones. This clearly doesn’t fall into the category of reasonable personal use. Former porn actress Ginger Lee also claimed he asked her to lie to the media about their exchanges.
Its not just politicians who have their sex scandals splashed across the tabloids. As Ryan Giggs, John Terry, Arnie and Tiger Woods evince, sporting personalities and celebrities also face pressure and public scrutiny about their private lives. How should this affect their careers? When Tiger Woods was labelled a sex addict and former mistresses released sex tapes and websites dedicated to sex texts he had his sponsorship deals revoked. One company justified this by saying that he was“no longer the right representative.” Given that he was sponsored in part for his golfing ability, and in part because of his clean image, the termination of this element of his work is justifiable. However, his private sex life had no impact on his ability to play golf, and so that he continued to do so was right. John Terry’s position as England Football Captain was less tenable because the post required the respect of his team mates which was far from guaranteed. As captain of England’s national team, he was also a role model and ambassador.
As a recent poll showed, just 19% of Americans believe that their politicians get caught out misbehaving so often because they have lower moral standards, with 57% citing the higher scrutiny public figures face. The argument however is not about whether public figures are more or less moral than the average person, or the media pressure and scrutiny they face. Its about what happens next. In terms of the law, being a prominent public figure should have no impact, positively or negatively, on proceedings. In the court of public opinion however the case is less clear cut. As a public figure your job spec is wider than fulfilling a specific set of duties, it also includes being a role model, being able to command respect, acting with decorum that the position demands and retaining integrity. This however has troubling implications for individual privacy. Clearly, there is no black or white answer to this debate.