A week in the life of a morality tale

Glenda Cooper and Mathew Horsman on how the media's handling of multiple pregnancies became the news itself
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There is undoubtedly something distasteful about Mandy Allwood's decision to auction her dramatic and potentially tragic story to the highest bidder. But is the press to blame? The mother of a potential eight babies, whose rather sordid tale has dominated media coverage in recent days, herself chased after the fame, making a call to the PR guru Max Clifford as soon as she had calculated the angles. Clifford, blunt as ever, conceded the point: "It is a sign of the times that the first person she contacted was her gynaecologist and the second was the PR."

The News of the World ran the story big this weekend, and all the other papers, quality, mid-market and populist, followed. Well, why wouldn't they? Coming as it did on the heels of two other abortion-related tales - Miss B's aborted twin and the frozen embryos furore - the story was all but unavoidable, and the NOTW pounced when it could.

The difficulty in stories such as these is not the fact that they receive such widespread attention - hardly surprising in a society so torn about the issue of abortion - it is, rather, the question of how the stories are treated, how the personalities become the point.

Consider what we have now learnt about Ms Allwood and her boyfriend, Paul Hudson. Are they involved in a petrol-pinching scam? Have they run up thousands in debts? Some of it will not please the anti-abortion campaigners who have latched on to this and previous cases, arguing that the fine moral judgements necessary militate in favour of a blanket prohibition against pregnancy termination, in the interests of the "family".

In the case of the eight foetuses, the question is oddly more straightforward than Miss B's twins. The danger to the mother is obvious, and the likelihood of her bringing all (or even any) to term looks slim.

In this case, we can blame the message far more than the messenger. It is not the fact that the NOTW (and the rest of Fleet Street) played the story big. It is that Ms Allwood hired a PR man and started to count up the cash.

The press had rather more to answer for in the more difficult case of Miss B, about which little was known except that she was said to be 28, a mother of one in "straitened circumstances". In the hands of Fleet Street, she became "the 28-year-old single mum" who "could not cope" with having twins (the Sun), or the "fit single mother pregnant with twins and horrified at the prospect of looking after two new babies" (the Times).

It was left to the Daily Mail to brand her decision as one of nothing more than "consumer choice".

Ms Allwood courted the fame by going public. Miss B has still not revealed herself, and the collected efforts of the Street's best "investigative" reporters have not yet unearthed her. That hasn't stopped the irresponsible personal attacks, and the crass assumptions about her motives.

But the press may have been guilty of more than just abhorrent disregard for the woman's privacy, or for the trauma she must have faced - a trauma surely known by any woman confronting the issue of whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. Questions remain about how the story broke, and they leave a sour taste.

Miss B's story was a great coup for the Sunday Express, which has been struggling for years to reverse declining circulation and a sense of aimlessness. And it came at a crucial time for Sue Douglas - hired from the Sunday Times early this year to relaunch the title, only to be second-guessed and sometimes harshly judged by an impatient proprietor and his management consultants.

To Douglas's likely delight, the story remained top of the national agenda for the next three days. But by the end of the week, the Sunday Express had, to some degree, become the story itself, in a way that the NOTW is unlikely ever to become. This should come as little surprise. Every newspaper felt hoodwinked after the news emerged that the twin's abortion had already occurred, having dedicated page after page to what editors believed was an ongoing issue, rather than a fait accompli.

The misconception was easy to understand. The Sunday Express story had begun in the present tense: "Professor Phillip Bennett faces a dilemma." Did the paper's reporter and editors know the woman had already aborted the twin? Had they in fact "changed" the tense to give the story immediacy?

Douglas categorically denied that the paper had known that the termination had taken place. Indeed, a spokesman for the hospital said late last week that there had been a "misunderstanding" rather than any wilful altering of the story to suit the requirements of a competitive newspaper. "It's very annoying that this has happened to the issue, which is a huge moral dilemma," said Douglas. "It does not matter if it happened yesterday or today - we still don't know when it is supposed to have happened. What this should be about is what did the professor think? He admitted he found it difficult. That's what should be debated in public."

True to a point, and indeed there was plenty of debate. But it none the less creates a faint sense of unease that the editor of a national newspaper should dismiss the need for precision in quality journalism. It is not enough to say that the facts may have been wrong, but the theory was right.

That, perhaps, is the most damning lesson from the recent string of abortion stories. The issues raised are absolutely crucial to the way we think about the family, children, pregnancy and the role of the state. And it will only get more difficult, as medical science brings us more and more options - each of them more morally fraught than preceding "breakthroughs".

The press needs to pursue the personalities involved, of course. And there is nothing wrong with reporting the details of a woman's own crusade to raise pounds 1m through the happenstance of her multi-foetus pregnancy. But precision, balance and restraint are laudable traits for a press privileged enough to be allowed to bring us such compelling stories as the dilemma of Miss B.