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Friday, July 17, 2009

Scrutinizing fitness to lead


LONDON — How much importance should we give to the right to privacy? Should politicians and personalities in the public eye be expected to forgo this right because the public need to know the facts about them in order to judge their fitness for office?

These questions have been much aired recently. The antics of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi with nubile young women have been reported at length, together with suggestive photographs, in popular magazines.

Berlusconi has never made a secret of his fondness for women, but it has been alleged that his entourage has systematically recruited young women to attend his parties in Rome and in Sardinia, and it has been reported that he gave them monetary presents as well as jewelry.

The media in Italy, which is largely controlled by Berlusconi, have been more reticent than foreign journals in reporting these stories, which the Italian prime minister has attacked as scurrilous scandalmongering. The decision by his wife to seek a divorce and criticisms of his behavior by members of the Catholic hierarchy have inevitably added to the feeling, outside Italy at least, that Berlusconi is not fit to lead one of the more important European economies.

He has drawn criticism not only because of his control of much of the Italian media but also for the way in which he has arranged through parliamentary processes to ensure that he is exempt from prosecution for various alleged financial misdemeanors. Italian views of him vary; some at least indulgently regard his flings with young women as examples of his machismo and forgivable in a rich politician in his 70s.

Whatever view is taken of his behavior, his position as prime minister surely justifies the reporting of his antics. But how justified was photographic intrusion of his palatial beach resort in Sardinia, which resulted in the publication of a photo of a former prime minister of the Czech Republic in the nude?

Another individual whose privacy was allegedly violated by a British newspaper was Max Mosley, the president of Formula 1 car racing. It was reported that he had consorted with prostitutes and indulged in masochistic acts with girls dressed as Nazis. For the son of the late Sir Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British Union of Fascists, this seemed reprehensible to many.

Max Mosley sued the paper for invasion of privacy and won damages of £60,000. The paper's plea that, because of Mosley's position in Formula I racing, a money-spinning sport, his behavior should be open to public scrutiny. The judge rejected this plea and declared that there was no public interest or other justification for the clandestine recording or the subsequent publication of the information gleaned together with photographs. The British press and probably the public generally supported the newspaper's arguments in this case.

Very recently it has been alleged that reporters from The News of The World, a Sunday Paper renowned for scandalmongering, have been offering money to private detectives to obtain telephone taps of prominent people. This allegation has arisen subsequent to the trial and conviction of the paper's royal correspondent for tapping into the phones of royal aides.

The fact that the former editor of The News of The World is now director of communications for David Cameron, the leader of the Conservative opposition, has given the affair a political twist. Some suggest that members of the Labour Party are trying to get back at the opposition for the way in which Prime Minister Gordon Brown's director of communications was forced to resign following reports he was behind attempts to circulate personal smears of members of the opposition front bench.

The right to privacy is an important human right. No one should be subject to harassment by press photographers or journalists. In particular, families should be allowed to mourn the loss of their loved ones without media intrusion. Private houses should, as the term implies, be private. Our bedrooms and bathrooms should not become public spaces.

But anyone who achieves a position of trust in the community must accept that their behavior will and should be subject to public scrutiny. If they make errors of judgment in their private life, whether over money matters or sexual peccadilloes, they must expect these errors to be reported so that the public can decide whether the individual involved can be trusted with the affairs of the nation or the organization that they are leading.

The principles are clear enough. The problem is to strike the right balance between maintaining the right to privacy and upholding the public interest by subjecting the actions of responsible persons to public scrutiny.

There will inevitably be times when individuals will feel aggrieved by the way in which the media report their behavior, but we should be very careful before we enact laws or rules that curb significantly the investigative powers and abilities of the media, which in our elected dictatorships remain, together with the judicial system, important upholders of our freedoms.

Hugh Cortazzi, a former British career diplomat, served as ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.


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