The footage was grainy, but the man stepping out of the gay sex club was easily recognisable.

David Campbell, then transport minister of the New South Wales Government, was outed in the evening news, prompting his resignation the following day. His sexuality was the subject of intense media coverage, not least because of the impact it would have on his wife and children. 

As headline grabbing and salacious as such personal scandals might be, one might question whether we should have the right to know about the private lives of politicians in the first place. After all, the fact of being queer alone bears little relevance to one’s ability to speak for their constituents, therefore arguably falling outside the realm of the public interest.  

Yet, the journalist who broke the story felt differently, noting that the politician in question had “purported to be a family man”. As such, some might see this as an act of exposing hypocrisy, speaking to a deeper issue of character that is highly problematic for representative democracy.  

So when it comes to dealing with information about the private lives of public officials, how morally justified are we in caring about what is done outside of parliament? 


When rights collide

Although privacy is beneficial for human well-being and flourishing, it is not unequivocally good because such a claim can equally be used to hide information. This poses a significant threat when we consider how the personal lives of those wielding political power might influence their decision-making abilities, negatively impacting those that they claim to represent.

This tension between the claims to privacy of public officials and the rights of the public and the media to freedom of information is an undeniably hard one to resolve 

On the one hand, the revelation of Gladys Berejiklian’s relationship with Daryl Maguire and her subsequent resignation over accusations of corruption vindicate the idea that we should hold the private lives of politicians under constant scrutiny.  

Yet, on the other, the case of David Campbell highlights the murky waters in which public interest claims lurk, with a person being pressured to end their political career over a seemingly inconsequential fact about their personal lives. 

Are we morally justified in paying attention to and seeking out private information about public officials? After all, prima facie, all individuals have morally and legally robust claims to privacy. 

Nevertheless, we generally consider it reasonable for interviewers to enquire about a potential employee’s prior working history to ensure that they are a good fit, or for a detective to ask someone questions about their private life to solve a crime. This is because privacy can and sometimes should be forfeited (with our knowing consent) for other rights or purposes, such as safety and transparency.  

On a similar note, many citizens would see certain information about the private lives of politicians as relevant to their decision of who to vote for. This interest is warranted because public officials attain their legitimacy and authority from being entrusted to represent their constituents.  

Ultimately, serving in government is ethically demanding to avoid the corruption of power, we must elect individuals who have a track record of not abusing such privileges. According to the perpetually relevant ‘unity of virtues’ theory of the ancient Greeks, individual morality exists across both public and private spheres of decision-making. 

As such, an absence or excess of good behaviour in one’s personal life may be illuminating with regard to professional conduct.

For instance, the media has recently reported that Boris Johnson, in his previous job as a motoring correspondent, accrued over £4000 in parking tickets. This fact, whilst seemingly trite, implies a historical pattern of rule flouting behaviour by the British Prime Minister, suggesting that we ought not be surprised by his involvement in the Partygate scandal.  

Such cases highlight the often-blurry public/private divide and justify why we might look to politicians’ personal lives for clues as to how they might fulfil their moral duty to represent their constituents and their interests – even if this conflicts with their own. 


Social media and the personalisation of politics

Furthermore, many politicians willingly open themselves up to public scrutiny by using their personal virtues and achievements to appeal to voters. We need not look further than Scott Morrison’s Twitter and Facebook feeds, which regularly feature pictures of the politician cooking up a curry in Kirribilli House and donning blue in support of the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, to see how political figures selectively reveal aspects of their private life to project a likeable image.  

For as long as public officials advertise themselves and attack others on the basis of irrelevant personal characteristics and decisions (see criticisms recently directed at Anthony Albanese for everything from his weight loss efforts to having a “quiet week” of campaigning despite being in isolation for Covid) they cannot also claim to be innocent victims of the press, particularly when journalists are merely reporting on these assertions. 

Nevertheless, politicians often resort to the refrain that ‘the media goes too far’ to divert attention away from their more questionable acts. When it was revealed that self-proclaimed family man and current Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce was having an extramarital affair with a staffer, a formal complaint about news coverage of the incident was made despite the couple accepting $150,000 to do a tell-all interview about it on live television. 

The omnipresent pressure for news outlets to turn a profit leads them to sensationalist reporting and a rather liberal stance as to what information falls into the purview of the public interest.

However, political journalism acts as an irreplaceable check on power, and we ought to be wary of solutions that involve stifling it more than it already is under Australia’s extremely rigid defamation laws. 


Towards a better discourse

Instead, content relating to the private lives of politicians needs to be understood in terms of its relevance to their ability to execute their role. We should actively dismiss and avoid searching for details that tell us nothing about the honesty, accountability, competence, integrity, judgement, and self-discipline of a public official, no matter how salacious. However, we can feel justified in pursuing information that reveals their historic performance in such areas. 

Admittedly, this is a long laundry list that leaves few areas off-limits. It is important to note here that judgements about protected characteristics alone – such as race, sexuality, religion and gender – are not morally acceptable ways in which to judge the competence of an individual, as established under anti-discrimination laws. 

That said, we cannot shy away from investigating how public officials have acted when they thought nobody was looking, particularly when such actions reveal how they use (and abuse) power or contradict their espoused values.

Because the relevance of this information can only be ascertained once it has been made publicly available, there will always be some politicians that have their privacy unjustly violated. This is a trade-off that can be easily defended when we consider the immense number of people that benefit from having a government composed of honest and accountable representatives. 

Additionally, anyone entering a public-facing role knowingly places their privacy in a position of vulnerability. If they have something to hide, politics is probably not the place for them, practically and principally speaking. 

Furthermore, we can limit the collateral damage of this proposal by encouraging journalists to prioritise reporting on facts that expose political corruption and speak truth to power. By choosing not to indulge in amusing but inconsequential gossip about the private lives of politicians, we can help change the incentive structure of the media system whilst simultaneously promoting enlightened attitudes towards sex and other areas of intense, but often illegitimate, public interest.  

The democratic function of the press falters when trivial details about the lives of politicians consume all the resources of our finite attention economy. As such, it is a moral imperative for news outlets to maintain strong ethical standards when it comes to their reporting on the private lives of politicians, focusing their coverage on that which is relevant to their ability to bear office.  

Finally, as public ethicist Patrick Dobel writes, “we should judge as mortals judging other mortals”. Public officials are not perfect people, but if they can recover from a fall from grace by regaining trust and legitimacy in the eyes of the people then we should leave them (and their sex scandals) be.