Once you are in public life, different standards and rules apply to you
"Where do you go to, my lovely?"
O tempora! O mores! Thanks to the nature of these things, we can no longer say what we all know, and are forced into the needlessly elliptical. Therefore and thusly: the recent demise of the political career of a government spokesperson on accusations of his — for want of a better phrase — infelicitous conduct caught on some dull security camera videotape has generated all manner of controversies, from protestations of this being an entirely private matter to accusations of besmirching high office.
No crime has been committed. There are victims, perhaps — family and friends — but they are silent and their concerns are indeed private and not for public delectation. Beyond that, something like this should have no bearing whatever on the person’s work, capability or — forgive me this — the discharging (so to speak) and performance (so to say) of functions and duties, even if as the redoubtable Shashi Tharoor famously wrote, we now know what an Act of Congress really means.
To every man his closeted skeletons; some more than others. We all have baggage, but when we volunteer to enter public life, in any capacity, some of that has to be left behind. And along with it, many rights and entitlements, the most important of which is the level of privacy we so take for granted as private citizens. The latter’s rights are well protected by judicial pronouncement; those of the former far less so; and in that class we find actors, performers, bureaucrats and politicians.
The public is much more forgiving of politicians’ indiscretions in India than it is abroad, as Messrs Clinton, Sarkozy and others have found. There is, especially in America, a demand for moral rectitude that borders on the ridiculous, the more so when compared to the absence of any such great standard in general society.
Sex and politics has always been a combustible pair. The 1963 Profumo scandal in England for example. John Profumo, then Secretary of State for War, had an affair with Christine Keeler, who was the mistress of someone said to be a Russian spy. Profumo lost his job. Harold Macmillan’s government never recovered from its battering; the Conservative Party lost the next election.
It was not for the affair that Profumo was sacked, but for lying about it to the House of Commons. Lying to protect privacy almost always follows the conflagration between sex and politics, and it is this that is the most egregious. A life lived in the public eye demands that you stick to the straight and narrow and also that if you do stray, you do not attempt the lie you might well get away with in private life. Lord Denning, who enquired into the affair, produced a book-length 70,000 word best-selling report saying that Profumo’s greatest sin was that he lied to Parliament. According to him, it was not so much the issue of whether Profumo had committed adultery as whether his conduct led the ordinary man to believe that he did. That, in short, is what seems to matter: not legality, not morality, but public perception. And the public is entitled to proceed on mere suspicion. As that incredibly funny duo, Flanders and Swann, said, parodying Denning, nil combustibus profumo: there’s no smoke without a fire.
The US standard, since New York Times v Sullivan1, is even higher. To prevent disclosure about public official and public figures on the ground of defamation, one must prove actual malice or negligence, and it doesn’t matter whether the reportage is true or false: i.e., the person seeking the gag must prove that the reporter or paper knew the report to be false and acted in “reckless disregard” of the truth, or was negligent. This is an onerous standard; few succeed. In the days of the Internet, where blocking or taking down one site only triggers another one mushrooming elsewhere, is also futile: it simply cannot be done. The Internet has no editor. That is at once both its greatest strength and its biggest weakness, and trying to trammel it is like shouting in the wind.
What this means therefore is that once you are in public life, different standards and rules apply to you. You cannot take the L out of public and expect to get away with it; if you do choose to wear different hats, be sure to put one over the camera; and Rule No.1: don’t get caught.
*O tempora! O mores!* Thanks to the nature of these things, we can no longer say what we all know, and are forced into the needlessly elliptical. Therefore and thusly: the recent demise of the political career of a government spokesperson on accusations of his -- for want of a better phrase -- infelicitous conduct caught on some dull security camera videotape has generated all manner of controversies, from protestations of this being an entirely private matter to accusations of besmirching high office.