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?
Sunday 07 February 1999
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.
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