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Internal private affairs - Frans Camilleri

Blogger Manuel Delia the other day posted an item about marital problems between the leader of the Opposition, Adrian Delia and his wife. This was soon picked up by the media and was propagated by the social media, eliciting the usual torrent of comments, allegations and insinuations (most of them plucked out of thin air).

I do not wish to delve into, or speculate, about the problems of the Delia family. But I think it is quite legitimate to ask whether Delia was ethically correct in posting the information.

Let us be honest. There are a great number of politicians, past and present, who have had problems in their marriage or who have indulged in extra-marital affairs. Nothing surprising in this. Politicians are just as human as we all are and their marriage or extra-marital affairs do not necessarily have a direct effect on their ability to do their job.

On the other hand, some might argue that somebody who violates the vows he made in a marriage cannot be trusted to uphold public oaths. Neither is it being suggested that those who break marriage vows will automatically become embezzlers or take bribes.

The point is whether a person who puts desire for sex above the good of his family or who abuses his partner or his children is just as likely to put desire for money and power ahead of the public good.

In other words, should a politician preach about the sanctity of marriage or the importance of the family but then expect not to be held accountable for living in direct contradiction to what he preaches?

In other words, can a politician be ethical in public life if s/he is unethical in his private one? Are we justified in discussing the ethical dilemmas raised by a politician’s personal behaviour? Where should we draw the line between a politician’s personal and public lives?

Everyone, including public figures, is entitled to privacy. However, when a person goes into public life, it is quite legitimate that certain issues that might be considered personal for a private individual can become matters of reasonable public interest when that individual is in office. Becoming a public servant means putting the public’s interest ahead of your own.

Behaviour that might impair performance, like serious illnesses or substance abuse, are matters of public interest

As usual, I detect a note of hypocrisy in how some people have reacted to Delia’s post. There was no outcry about the loss of privacy when the late Daphne Caruana Galizia alleged that Economy Minister Chris Cardona had been to a German brothel. In substance, both raise matters that could be in the public interest.

While it might be a private matter if a politician visits a brothel it could potentially become a public one given that the politician concerned could be subject to blackmail for not divulging his peccadillo. Similarly, if a wife seeks a separation from her politician husband because of domestic violence or financial mismanagement, the private matter becomes a public one given that the politician husband presumably advocates against such violence or in favour of sound finances in public.

In practice, no two people are likely to draw the line between personal and public matters in the same place. As for me, I would say that if a private matter is likely to affect the performance of an office-holder’s duties, this should no longer remain private.

Thus, the physical health of a politician or important office holder is a matter of public interest, simply because his/her health is of key importance to the country. This is because behaviour that might impair performance, like serious illnesses or substance abuse, is a matter of public interest. Similarly, a politician who has personal financial problems cannot expect privacy when he is likely to have budgetary responsibilities if he is in government or expected to comment responsibly on such responsibilities if in Opposition.

These issues are as old as the question of authority itself. They were the subject of ethical debates by the ancient Greek philosophers who spoke about “the unity of the virtues”. In this vein, they asked whether a person who could not control his appetites or was intemperate could be just or prudent. Aristotle himself would have argued that leaders should have “true virtue, where all parts of the soul are pulling in the same direction”.

The classical philosophical tradition is that the central task of the public sphere is educational, helping to shape the souls of the next generation so they may achieve knowledge and do the right thing. In this context, a public servant must serve as an example of good conduct.

Many difficult ethical dilemmas arise in the relationship between an office holder’s personal and public lives.

One is that of ‘youthful indiscretion’. We had an example of this recently, when a controversy erupted as to whether two young law graduates should have been given their warrants based on a theft they had committed years before. Was this germane to their current characters? Had they relapsed or been accused of further wrongdoing? Or did they have to pay forever after for their youthful indiscretion?

Another difficult set of issues are raised by behaviour that may be legal but still could have a potential deleterious impact on the public good. One example would be when an office holder uses his office to gain advantage in his personal life. It may be as petty as the chairman of Gozo Channel calling the captain of the ferry and getting him to wait for him.

This and other similar acts committed on the pretext that the officials concerned have some sort of authority they do not really have, do not really raise ethical dilemmas; they are just plain wrong.

I would say that the private matters of office holders can be considered public only if such matters are interfering with their duties, are an abuse of their position or are acts that are unlawful or illegal. Otherwise, I think they are simply dirt that is brought up for the sake of gossip, media buzz and the like.

Manuel Delia’s post was just the latter, since he did not make any claims that this private matter was affecting the public life of the leader of the Opposition.

Frans Camilleri is an economist and former journalist.

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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