Richard Scudamore (big cheese in the Premiership League) and Nick West (sports law partner at DLA Piper) are in trouble this week.
They exchanged private emails – from their work email addresses – containing a number of sexist remarks about women. These emails were then read by a ‘temporary’ employee at the Premiership end, who accessed Scudamore’s email account without permission and promptly handed the good stuff to the media.
And there was outrage.
Feminists are calling for Scudamore to be sacked (although nobody seems to be objecting to West’s participation, maybe because it’s safer to mess with footballers than it is to mess with lawyers).
Frankly, I find it hard to get all that excited. From what I’ve read, the emails were the kind of silly, bloke-ish rubbish that men come out with when they’re trying to do the Male Bonding thing and prove what Real Men they are. I don’t find it threatening or insulting; I find it pitiable. Like politicians who can’t find anything good to say about their own party so they fall back on blackening the names of their opponents, men who come out with this stuff are only demonstrating their deep-seated insecurity about themselves and their place in society.
These two middle-aged men, stuck in their office jobs – particularly poor old Scudamore, whose job is focused very much on younger, fitter men who get all the girls – are probably worrying about various parts of their anatomy going (or remaining) floppy. There’s no opportunity for them to demonstrate their virility; a spreadsheet responds just as well (or badly) to either gender, and every day women are making more inroads into traditionally male preserves (like football and law, for instance). How can they demonstrate their continued manliness – or even relevance? The opportunities for wood-chopping and alligator-wrestling are sadly diminished in today’s corporate jungle.
Sad, desperate, sexist emails are probably the only way left for these two to shore up each other’s failing confidence in their virility. We should not be calling for resignation; we should be advising that they maybe get some counselling, or take a trip to their GP. It’s natural, after all, that at their age, various parts of the anatomy don’t function quite as well as they did thirty years ago. They shouldn’t feel insecure or guilty about it. Real manliness is not about anatomical function; the Code of Chivalry of the knights of old was big on protecting the weak and doing the right thing, but strangely silent on bedroom activity.
So much for Scudamore and West. But I think this demonstrates a deeper problem we have. Nowadays, it’s so much easier for people’s private communications to escape out into the wild, and with the internet, they can be seen by many more people. In the old days, people would make their inadvisable comments in the pub, or by private letter. They’d be extraordinarily unlucky for such comments to get picked up and publicised more widely. Nowadays, with email and social media, an off-the-cuff comment can be publicised beyond your wildest nightmares and follow you for years. That is at the heart of the recent suit against Google, in which the ECJ decided that Google – as a data controller – could be made to take down links to ‘out of date, irrelevant or inaccurate’ information that an individual did not want publicised. But who decides what is out of date, irrelevant or inaccurate? While this might seem to be a good thing for people who want to make sure prospective employers don’t see that picture of them drunk and throwing up in a gutter, it’s more likely to be used by celebrities, politicians and criminals who want to whitewash their pasts.
To my mind, is not the availability of such information, but how society deals with it and reacts to it that is the problem. Back in the old days, an isolated error of judgement – particularly by an ordinary person – wasn’t really a problem because probably nobody would ever find out about it. If you were a professional person wishing to guard your public image, it was pretty easy – all you had to do was satisfy your craving for train-spotting, morris-dancing or competitive rock-paper-scissors, was go to another town and be reasonably careful. Nowadays, a photo taken by a person who doesn’t even know who you are and which features you only in the background, posted on the internet, can ruin your incognito and possibly your career. Increasingly, the only way to avoid such accidental exposure is not to do whatever it is at all.
Now, while you might say “Excellent, we don’t want our doctors and lawyers to be the sort of people who would sneak off and moon around on platforms waiting for the 3:25,” think a minute about what this means. Because ‘professional conduct’ extends beyond not doing anything that is criminal, and into avoiding the undignified, and also into areas that most of us would consider deeply private. What of the teacher who doesn’t want it to be known that he is gay? Should he have to stay away from venues where other gay people are known to gather, just in case? What about the lawyer who enjoys cross-dressing? Should he have to only do it at home with the curtains closed? Alone? What about the doctor who is a member of a minority political or protest group?
It is now more difficult than ever before to keep one’s private life private. I think this means that we need to both redefine what we mean by ‘privacy’ and what we can legitimately expect to keep private, and also we need to change how we deal with information about people. How many of us can say that we have never, ever made a mistake? Never, ever, said anything inadvisable? I think we need to acknowledge that applying the standards of twenty years ago to the world of today is deeply unfair. If Richard Scudamore weren’t chief executive of the Premier League, would we care about his emails? Would this ‘temporary member of staff’ who was snooping around have passed the emails on to the media if Scudamore were, for example, a payroll clerk? More tellingly, would they even have been snooping? Probably not.
We need to acknowledge that a person’s professional life is separate to their personal life – and that a professional person is entitled to have a personal life. We cannot hold professional and high-profile people to standards that, if they were to be imposed on the rest of us, we would regard as a gross breach of our right to private life.
We also need to be more charitable. Back in the old days, finding out that the vicar was involved in S&M parties would have meant that the vicar had probably been careless or indiscreet. Nowadays, however careful he is, he risks exposure, through no fault of his own. We need to acknowledge that it’s no longer practical for people to present the public image of perfection – and that applies to us all. We are demanding the impossible: the public image of a life without blemish. And which of us has that? Instead, we need to be acknowledging that nobody is perfect, and that harmless (but weird) character traits and pursuits, or even unpalatable political and personal views, do not necessarily make a person unfit to do their job – as long as the person has demonstrated an ability to keep their personal life, and their personal views, separate from their professional life.
Holding people to a high standard is one thing – holding them to an impossible standard is quite something else. But I expect that most people will not acknowledge this until they are standing in front of the boss and a member of the HR department, and someone pushes a photo across the desk and says, “So, can you explain this?”