The Media And Privacy Of Public Officers
As we march towards election 2008, during which Ghanaians will be replacing one leader with another, a number of institutions such as the Electoral Commission have come under the public microscope. Another key institution that has attracted public attention recently is the media. This is rightly so because of all the pervasive influence of the media on society. The focus has shifted from media infractions to the coverage of the private lives of public figures. In the discourse, two views have emerged. The first which is mostly canvassed by journalists is that there is no line, or at best a thin line between the private lives of public figures and their public lives. This view holds that public officers get a lot of goodies on the basis of their being public officers. For example, public officers have access to a free car or cars, free petrol, etc. and that these resources are used for both their private and public lives. How they use these resources, even in their private lives, should be a matter of public concern hence the need for public accountability of their lives. Given this view, all aspects of the life of a public officer should be of legitimate interest to the media. The second view which is held mostly by public office holders, argue that the public life of public officers can be an issue of public concern, but that of their private lives should be private. It is argued that where there is an unnecessary intrusion into the lives of public officers, good people who would ordinarily make excellent public officers shy away from accepting public office. They argue that by going into public office, it is only those public aspects of their lives that must be opened up. A critical look at these arguments will show that there must be some sympathy for both arguments. This means there must be circumstances when the private lives of public officers must be opened for public scrutiny and some other circumstances when they must be closed. The issue is where does one draw the line? The celebrated Newsweek Columnist, Joe Klein, was critical of himself and his American colleagues who covered the Clinton campaign in 1992. According to Joe Klein, all the rumours and tips of Clinton’s womanising were available to the media covering the campaign, but they ignored them. Had they focused on this issue, America may have been saved from all the controversy and distractions that characterised the waning years of the Clinton Presidency. It has even been suggested that all the controversy over Monica Lewinsky and others diverted attention from the critical issues of state such as resurgence of Al Qaeda. The result of 9/11. The above arguments should not mean that all is fair game and that aspects of the private lives of public office holders need to be protected. For example, how do you deal with issues involving children of public officers who could be destroyed for life just because their parents happened to be public officers? So where do we draw the line? So far, the model that has emerged in Ghana is that it is the media which will exercise its discretion in deciding where to cross the line, which issue is fair game and which is not. Such a model places too much responsibility in the hands of individual journalists hungry for by-lines and sales and thus may not be the most circumspect on such issues. The issue becomes even more serious when rumours and innuendoes are raised to the level of facts. I have met too many Ghanaian journalists who take the position that “l have written. If what l have written is not true, write your side of the story and l will publish it”. By the time you write your side of the story, you may have been damaged permanently. There is therefore the need for some conventions to which all Ghanaian journalists and public figures can ascribe. In this, two models may be instructive, that is the French model and the Danish model. In the French system, the private lives of public officials are private insofar as the officer kept it private and is a public matter if the public officer makes the issue public. For example, President Mitterrand was supposed to have had a second family for years. The media knew about it, but so far as he kept it a private affair, the media allowed him to have his privacy. The contrast is President Sarkozy who is having a public affair with his girlfriend. He goes on official functions including foreign trips with her. He is seen holidaying with her in public. The Sarkozy affair has therefore become a matter of public discourse and has dented the image of Sarkozy. If the model is applied in Ghana, then what it will mean is that a public officer can have a family outside his home, but as soon as the public purse becomes involved, such as the paying of school fees, the provision of secret service protection, the use of official resources in sending such family to school, or the market, then it becomes a legitimate public issue. Another example could be where a public officer uses his office to secure some advantage for his mistress or her family. That would be a legitimate issue for public discourse and media exposure. The second model is that of the Danish media. In Denmark, the private life of public officers is private unless that aspect of the life of a public figure can be shown to have impinged on the public role of that officer. In 1995, l was part of a delegation from the National Media Commission led by Prof. Kwame Karikari to study the Danish Media System. Part of our brief was to find out how the media handled the issue of the public vs. private lives of public officers. We were pleasantly surprised to find that the Danes had clear but unwritten rules on how to deal with this issue. We were told of how in one instance, the leader of a junior partner in the then ruling coalition government was known to be an alcoholic within media circles, but this did not become an issue until the day she had to preside over a party Congress. She was so drunk that she had to be physically carried from the podium into her room. For the Danish media, this was a clear indication that this politician’s private life had made it impossible for her to perform her public function and asked for her head. A specific case narrated to us involved a call to the Prime Minister’s office, “fire the lady within four hours, or we go to print”. The Prime Minister decided to ask the lady to resign within the time. What this means is that, there are a number of models that can be applied to the Ghanaian society. Certainly, the laisser-faire situation cannot continue. Both media men and political figures must draw a line somewhere in order to ensure that good people are encouraged to go into public life, while at the same time making it difficult for the charlatans, whose sole purpose is to take advantage of their public positions to further their private aims. There is certainly the need for public accountability, but we need to decide its framework as a nation.
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