Focus: Politics is not for children

If politicians use their children to promote themselves and their policies, can they object to the media's interest in them?

Let me tell you a little snippet about Euan Blair, son of our Prime Minister. Interested? Then you are part of the problem. But aren't we all? Our natural nosiness so easily gets in the way of our judgement about where the boundary between the private and the public should lie.

There was something quaintly old-fashioned about the pained statement issued by Hillary and Bill Clinton last week protesting at the publication by a US magazine of a cover story about their daughter, Chelsea, and how she was bearing up under the pressure of her father's impeachment. There was the echo of something familiar, too, in the protestations by People magazine about "valid" journalistic inquiry. And yet how odd it was to feel that, for once, the Brits were ahead of the game. It is not a subject in which we might be proud to excel.

Here in Britain we have long become accustomed to the sight of politicians' children in the press. True, we make appropriately affronted noises but the baseline from which our indignation issues is so much more tolerant of intrusion than is the norm in the United States.

That much was clear from the wording of the Clintons' complaint. For once there seemed no yucky American hyperbole in the statement by the President and First Lady that they "deeply regret and are profoundly saddened" by the magazine's refusal to respect the ordinance of silence which the couple had requested the media observe on their 18-year-old daughter. The protest came over an eight-page story which, though it was billed on the cover as "an intimate look at the deep bond of love that sustains the Clinton women through their painful family ordeal", was anodyne in content and utterly sympathetic in tone.

Contrast that with the report earlier this month in the Mail on Sunday about Tony Blair's daughter, Kathryn. The newspaper reported (or manufactured, some critics suggested) a fairly dramatic attack on the decision to allow the Prime Minister's 10-year-old to enrol at the Sacred Heart High School in Hammersmith - a girls' Catholic comprehensive in west London - where 200 of the 350 applicants for places were turned away. The newspaper reported bitter complaints from parents that the Prime Minister had stolen a place which should have gone to a more local applicant. Tony Blair, no doubt angry at the thought of his daughter arriving at the school to face playground sniping about favouritism, has complained to the Press Complaints Commission.

In such circumstances the media's riposte is predictable. When it comes to questions such as how schools select their pupils, issues of public policy are involved - and, after all, Mr Blair makes the rules and his actions are legitimately judged against them. If he allows one of his ministers to condemn irresponsible parents who take children on holiday during term-time, he cannot cry foul when he does it himself and the press cry hypocrite. And when Harriet Harman sent one of her sons to grammar school, it was not just the press taking advantage of a situation then opposed by Labour Party policy (since modified) - Clare Short and other colleagues fuelled the uproar.

Yet even when such inconsistencies between the personal and the policy do not arise, newspapers justify their interest in politicians' children with the argument that it is their parents who introduce them into the public arena, to counter their image of untrustworthiness with a bit of warm family-man humanity.

SOMETIMES THIS is an exercise in cynicism. Jonathan Aitken wheeled out his 17-year-old daughter, Victoria, to lie for him, drawing up a false statement for the High Court to back his claim that their stay in the Paris Ritz was a family holiday instead of a bit of sleazy political chicanery. He was, when his libel action collapsed, even on the point of putting her into the witness box to commit perjury in person. In the lexicon of abuse of children by politicians, this must be the hardest case to understand or forgive.

Horror was the reaction of many when another Tory, John Gummer, force- fed his six-year-old daughter a hamburger in public during the beef crisis in 1990. Some have suggested the then Agriculture Minister acted with callous disregard in pushing the government line that "beef is safe" in the knowledge that such a pronouncement could not honestly be made. I have a higher opinion of Mr Gummer than that, but involving his daughter (instead of eating it himself) was a serious misjudgement - a feeling I suspect he now shares, judging from his loss of temper when the issue is raised by interviewers.

But Messrs Aitken and Gummer are unusual in having made their children do something so dramatic. More common is the use of offspring as political window-dressing. When Ron Davies became Labour's first embarrassing resignation, he faced the press with his wife and their 12-year-old daughter, Angharad. They smiled and stood by silently as the disgraced Welsh Secretary held forth on how his behaviour on Clapham Common had brought the family closer together. No one believed him and he was accused of "doing a Mellor" in a mocking recollection of the Tory minister who, after his affair with an actress, produced his eight- and 12-year-old sons, Freddie and Anthony, at the five-barred gate of his wife's parents' home - and had the brass- neck to tell photographers: "I don't want it to look too much like a cynical photo call." Mr Mellor later repaid his wife's loyalty by leaving her to marry another mistress.

Other political use of children is more subtle. Mr Blair's children, for example, make far more appearances - both for the cameras and in their father's speeches - than did John Major's or Neil Kinnock's. In his address on the environment to the United Nations, the Prime Minister told delegates that he was speaking not just as a politician but as a father. In his article for the Sun after the Omagh bombing, he said he would go mad with grief if one of his children was killed like that. Last week, in an interview on This Morning, the TV programme with Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, he mentioned his children, unprompted, saying that he was "more likely to rage at the kids than lose my temper with the ministers". It is a rhetorical device that has been much mocked by satirists and which irritates Tory opponents who accuse him of using his children, rather like his Stratocaster guitar, as props - albeit not as hamfistedly as the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who is not above borrowing other people's children for his photo calls.

Those who know the Prime Minister well insist that this is unfair. His press secretary, they say, organises photo opportunities when Mr Blair takes Euan to Twickenham in order to give the cameras their moment and then allow the pair to watch the rest of the rugby in peace. They defend the way he brings his family into everything: "It's not a device, it's just the way he thinks," said one insider, "that's how he really is."

ONE determinant in the privacy debate is age. Even the tabloids agreed, after the death of Diana, to lay off her sons while they were at school - though some have not managed to. But Chelsea Clinton is 19 this month and the argument is that she can fend for herself now. After all, she has been wheeled out on a number of occasions - her parents' recent visits to Israel, Africa and China, for example. Some critics have suggested that her father uses her as a shield to deflect booing at public events and as a PR symbol in photographs, such as the one taken the day after he confessed to the affair with Monica Lewinsky. In it Chelsea was seen, walking between her parents, holding their hands, as they crossed the White House lawn.

Perhaps motive enters in here, much as it did for the teenage daughters of the Tory MEP Tom Spencer, who resigned last week after being caught importing drugs and homosexual pornography. Their appearance with him for the press seemed to speak of true loving family solidarity in the face of adversity. It seems equally likely that Chelsea Clinton is prompted by the desire to keep together a Mom and Dad who are both obviously close to her. Her motives, one suspects, are about holding a family together rather than keeping a President in office.

But motives, of course, are the one thing about which we can never be really certain. In which case, surely it is incumbent on us to give the offspring of the famous the benefit of that doubt. That titbit on Euan Blair? I think I'll keep it to myself.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

    £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

    Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

    £90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

    Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

    £96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

    Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

    £32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste