Dancing the Night Away Publicly

Just hours after Finland’s young prime minister set a Helsinki dancefloor alight, leaked footage of her partying the night away set the internet ablaze. She knew she was being filmed, she said, but trusted that the person filming it would keep it private. They didn’t. To expect such discretion in this day and age was probably naïve.

The resulting furore about Finnish PM Sanna Marin, 36, a wife and mother, has triggered all manner of debates, including how a public figure ought to behave in private and the extent to which public figures have a right to privacy. Some social media users have interpreted comments heard in the video as references to drugs. No drugs, said Marin, adamantly.

For her part, Marin has largely shrugged the whole episode off. It was just good clean fun, she argued, a 36-year-old woman enjoying a night out with friends. However, she did apologise for – and acknowledge as “inappropriate” - photos of two bare-chested partygoing women in Marin’s official residence that emerged days later.

In some ways, she is on firm ground. Finns are proud of their modern head of government and of her attitude. One of the world’s youngest political leaders, she is married to Markus Raikkonen, an investor and former football player, and together they have a four-year-old daughter. “I danced, sang, and partied, all perfectly legal things,” she said, defending herself from criticism from opposition parties.

Alongside the unproven suggestion of drugs, an element of scandal centred on Marin’s intimately close 4am dance with Olavi Uusivrta, a male Finnish pop star. He has since said that there is nothing to see here. “Hand-on-heart, we’re just friends, nothing happened”. Likewise, Sarin has said that they were just dancing, that’s all. Social media users raised an eyebrow. Few took these protestations of innocence at face value. On issues such as this, the internet is at best sceptical, at worst cynical.

If Marin’s midnight antics on a night off has the air of a sleazy tabloid story, that is not how she sees it. Drug use allegations are no laughing matter, she said. “I only drunk alcohol and partied in a boisterous way. I consider these accusations to be very serious. And although I think the demand that I take a drug test is unjust, for my own legal protection – and to clear up any doubts – I have taken a test.” She added that she had paid for it herself. It later came back negative.

Reaction to the story has at times bordered on the absurd, given that at its heart, this is a story about a young woman dancing and having the time of her life in a nightclub, like most people her age. She is known for having a joyously open character. Indeed, it is part of who she is, who Finns voted for, something that is rightly celebrated.

Be that as it may, the Marin melee has not stopped people asking: where is the line between a politician’s private life and the public interest? If you are a public figure, or in a position of authority, are you entitled to live your life like anyone else, keeping private things private, or are you required to adhere to a kind of code of conduct in your downtime and behind closed doors? After all, the conduct of public figures is often their undoing. The UK’s Boris Johnson is one such example, although the now famous parties he attended were during lockdown and therefore against his own rules. Marin’s partying broke no such edict.

According to the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, “everyone, including public figures, is entitled to privacy, but when a person goes into public life, he or she must understand that certain issues that might be considered private for a private individual can become matters of reasonable public interest when that individual runs for office”. In that sense, it says, “becoming a public servant means putting the public’s interest ahead of your own”.

Given this ethical definition, the public’s interest in Marin’s private life is understandable. It seems a truism to say that as soon as someone becomes a public figure, the world will be watching and watching closely, monitoring their every step. In politics, there is usually an opposite party happy and willing to use it against you.

Does it matter that we are discussing a woman, here? Many feel that when it is a woman who is in a position of power, as opposed to a man, sympathy simply drains away. Likewise, they feel that a woman can be more exposed to negative press than a man might be. It is certainly true that when thinking of role models we often think of men, in large part because we know so little about female role models who ought to be more celebrated. As Marin herself said to Vogue magazine in 2020: “In every position I have ever been in, my gender has always been the starting point, that I am a young woman.”

The Markkula Center talks about politicians “practicing the virtues of honesty and trustworthiness in both personal and private life”, with “the personal behaviour of politicians a legitimate area of public concern”. But, as Marin said, her Saturday night partying does not impair her ability to lead the country, nor does it compromise her integrity. If it did, she said, she would have resigned.

As the debate wears on, Marin looks increasingly like the standard bearer of a new generation of politician, arguing successfully against those who say this shows she does not yet take the role of prime minister seriously. In this, she has support from women around the world, many of whom have uploaded footage of them dancing in solidarity.

For Marin, who will live to fight another day, the scrutiny will take some getting used to. Like other leaders before her, she will have to find a way to cope with the intrusion into her private life, the lens into her downtime. She is right: what happens in private should stay private. Alas, as we know, the world does not always work like that.