Francois Mitterand, one of France’s most respected presidents, died in 1996. Photographed next to the grieving widow was Mitterand’s mistress, Anne Pingeot, as well as Mitterand’s illegitimate daughter to whom Mitterand had been an active and loving father. It may seem hypocritical to wink and turn away from such obvious moral deviance, but this saved Mitterand’s wife from gross public humiliation, allowed Mitterand to spend many valuable years in office, and enabled Mitterand’s illegitimate child to grow up away from the public eye. The Paris Match commented after Mitterand’s death: “If it was corruption that would be different, but we don’t run stories on politicians’ sex lives. That’s a private matter between a man and a woman and to comment on it would be boorish.” Mitterand’s own personal response when questioned over his personal life was always the elusive ‘Et alors?’ (So what?). Just few miles across the Channel, however, such indifference is unthinkable.
It is often argued that figures in the public eye have no right to privacy. That, we are told, is the price of fame. Celebrities are persistently brutalized and berated for their sexual encounters in the tabloids but this ultimately does not affect how they do their job. The blowjob Hugh Grant received from a Los Angeles hooker might have caused him a red face, but doesn’t appear to have affected his ability to play the lovable cad in Bridget Jones’ Diary. Paris Hilton’s sex video, although humiliating, has not affected her ability to perform her professional duties, whatever they may be. This situation is very different however when a politician is caught being sexually deviant. Careers are wrecked beyond repair and often this results in the loss to public service of very able politicians. Yet just like most celebrities, politicians’ sexual preferences often have no bearing whatsoever on how well they can (ahem) perform their jobs.
Politicians would appear at first glance to have even less right to privacy than celebrities, as it is part of their job to inspire public confidence in themselves as honest, reliable human beings. Therefore every aspect of their life must be open to public scrutiny and important issues do arise when politicians are found to have strayed from the path of righteousness. The Major government’s staunch promotion of family values went tits up (excuse the pun) when a substantial percentage of the cabinet were discovered to be having affairs. The Prime Minister himself was of course later included in this group. Blunkett’s affair with Kimberley Quinn would have been grudgingly accepted had he not used his government status to try and score her American nanny a visa. The most recent examples of Simon Hughes denying – and then admitting – his homosexuality, and Mark Oaten’s secret relations with Polish rent boys despite being “happily” married do make you question how trustworthy these individuals can be on public matters if they are so deceitful in their personal affairs. However the misdemeanors of Oaten and Hughes are inconsequential when compared to sex scandals of the past. Whatever the News Of The World may claim, lying to your wife about Polish rent boys is not necessarily one step on a slippery slope to lying to the public about taxation or the NHS. The hypocrisy of the Major government cannot be compared to the so-called betrayals of Oaten and Hughes. Those who called for Clinton’s impeachment over the Monica Lewinsky affair surely cannot be suggesting that his actions were comparable to those of Nixon at Watergate.
A politician’s duty is to be answerable to the public wherever politics is involved and we should not expect them to answer any question beyond this realm. Most of us, if being interviewed for a job or a place on a degree course would meet questions about our sexual preferences and behaviour with a sharp ‘None of your damn business!’ We should thus question whether it is ever socially acceptable to so brazenly ask anyone about his or her sex life, especially when much is at stake, as the media has forced Oaten and Hughes to do so recently.