Victim of your own success: the higher the profile, the greater the expectation to uphold public confidence?

14 November 2016

Sarah Harris looks at the similarities and differences between how your conduct outside of ‘work’ can affect your career in both the regulatory and sporting arenas, and how arguably the greater your public profile, seemingly the greater the onus to uphold confidence.

In healthcare regulation, the balance to be struck between allowing individuals to conduct their own private lives away from scrutiny and ensuring that public confidence in that professional (person) is maintained is an ever-changing, case specific, moveable feast.  The key tenet is that propounded by regulatory lawyers across the land, of Master of the Rolls Thomas Bingham in Bolton v Law Society[1]….

The reputation of the profession is more important than the fortunes of any individual member. Membership of a profession brings many benefits, but that is a part of the price.

The benefits of being able to call yourself, in that case, a solicitor, with the kudos and reputation that follows, therefore comes at a cost; the requirement to uphold a collective reputation and not bring  the profession into disrepute. 

And so it is the same for sporting professionals.  With the many benefits that sporting greatness now brings in our celebrity-worshiping society, responsibilities creep ever higher; arguably the public expect more responsibility from a public figure the higher their profile.  As children and mouldable young people look up to their sporting idols and watch their every move on social media, so the public expect a level of moral accountability and caution in their actions.

No one is perhaps more aware of this at the moment that four-times Olympic medallist Louis Smith.  Smith has been handed a two month ban by British Gymnastics over a video in which he appears to mock Muslim prayer practices with his colleague, retired gymnast Luke Carson.  Carson was given a reprimand.  The difference in sanction was no doubt due to the fact that Smith had previously been reprimanded in June for posting an image on social media of a 16 year old American Gymnast along with a comment that was ‘unbefitting to a participant’.  British Gymnastics Chief Executive Jane Allen said that;

"It is regrettable that following a historic summer of achievement, the organisation finds itself in this difficult position with two high-profile members in breach of our standards of conduct," she said. Whilst both individuals showed remorse following the incident, we hope they use their profile to have a positive impact on sport and communities."

The matter even made its way into parliamentary debate. Conservative MP Charles Walker condemned the public vitriol against Smith, claiming it was his freedom of expression to make any such comment.  Theresa May in response said that she understood Mr Walker’s concern but that there was a ‘balance that we need to find’ between freedom of expression and tolerance towards others.   Whatever the merits of that view, and wherever your opinion on where the balance should be struck, Louis Smith must have been aware that his actions could have been widely publicised if made public and it is this that makes him arguably more accountable for any actions than any of us on the ‘Clapham omnibus’.

Just as Bingham MR calls for solicitors to maintain the collective reputation of the profession as part of their duty, Louis Smith has been held up as needing to maintain the trust placed in him by parents of young people who look up to him as a sporting idol.  Whatever the rights or wrongs of his actions, or whatever your view about his behaviour, it is certainly right to say that the higher the profile of an individual in the pursuit of their profession, arguably the greater the scrutiny.  Of the high level of that scrutiny Louis Smith must have been aware.

Smith is a victim of his own success, the yardstick against which his moral compass is to be measured creeping up with his profile.  If he had not been as successful in his sporting career as he had been, his responsibility for upholding the reputation of the profession would be greatly diminished. Indeed we would simply not have known about his behaviour.  This sliding scale is something that does not apply in healthcare regulation where unprofessional conduct is as blameworthy whatever your rank or file.

High profile sports people must, in the same way as other professionals, think carefully about how their behaviour could bring their profession into disrepute.  Behaviour outside of their profession may impinge on their ability to pursue their career if it affects the confidence the public place in them. 

[1] Bolton v Law Society [1994] 1 W.L.R. 512

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