'Keep it the family' refers to the cash and not the secrets for Julie Myerson

Julie Myerson's book has drawn a mixed response from fellow columnists, says Matthew Bell
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Whatever Oscar Wilde might have said, for Jake Myerson there is nothing worse than being written about. It was, says his mother Julie, a "guilty impulse" that made her go public with her family's private affairs in a new book. Then last week it emerged it was not the first time she had yielded to that impulse, having been the anonymous author for two years of the candid Guardian column "Living With Teenagers".

Parents of difficult children have cheered Myerson for bringing into the open what, for many, goes on behind closed doors. But there is a growing feeling among other columnists that, with her latest revelations, Myerson has crossed a previously carefully observed line in the flourishing genre of confessional journalism.

Rachel Johnson, who for many years wrote the "Mummy Diaries" in the Daily Telegraph, knows the temptation of using family for easy copy. "You are under an immense pressure from your editor to put in as much personal material as possible, especially if they know what your specific weaknesses are," she says. "And of course you are under pressure from your family not to. The secret is to give just enough so that the reader feels involved, but to know what to hold back."

Myerson claims that writing about her skunk-smoking son Jake was a form of catharsis, but others see more cynical motives. Tom Utley, who once penned a column about teenagers, "A Father Writes", says he was never under any pretence that his motive was anything but cash. "All I can say is that you have to stare at a blank computer screen, with the sub-editors glaring at the clock and the prospect of £350 dangling before you, to understand the family columnist's irresistible temptation to overstep the mark."

Money is indeed the driving factor for most. "It's a small price to pay for the school fees," concedes Johnson.

Mary-Ann Sieghart, satirised by Private Eye as always boasting of her children's intelligence, gave up writing about them when they were old enough to read her columns. On one occasion, her daughter was mortified after a sub-editor put the headline "Modesty forbids" on an item in which Sieghart wrote of an unnamed girl who had come up with a clever science slogan. "That was the tipping point", she says. "I don't write about them any more."

Renowned self-publicist Toby Young, who made his name with the book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, admits to writing about his children but resolves to stop as they grow up. "They're all under six, but when they get older I will have to establish a ground rule to run anything past them first."

Only Liz Jones (pictured), the Mail on Sunday columnist who chronicled the disintegration of her marriage to novelist Nirpal Dhaliwal, defends the columnist's right to full exposure, arguing there is an obligation to be honest. Yet even she admits that "with children it's a lot trickier". Dhaliwal agrees. "I'm not angry with what Liz did, because I'm a grown man and could walk out at any time," he says. "The difference is that Liz exposed herself, whereas Myerson has exposed her son."

Mother of young children Mariella Frostrup has even suggested that the law should help protect the privacy of children: "Legislating against parents' bad judgement in exposing their children may be no bad idea," she wrote in The Guardian last week. For others, common sense suffices.

"It's is a golden rule that you can only write about yourself," says Tanya Gold, who has written in marmalade-dropping detail about her romantic history and battles with alcohol. "If you are writing for money, for self-acceptance, or publicity, you only have the right to explore your own life and nobody else's. I happen to like writing about myself so I do, but Julie Myerson is lying to herself if she thinks she is helping her son by writing. You should consult a psychotherapist before consulting your publisher."

For those who are written about, there's a common sense of injustice. "It's like having a one-sided argument – you can't argue back," says Ivo Dawnay, husband of Rachel Johnson, who often makes it into her copy. In the case of Myerson, that may have been the point, says Rachel Royce, the ex-wife of writer Rod Liddle, who wrote about their break-up extensively. "When somebody does not listen to you, putting something in black and white can be very effective. I didn't particularly want the world to know but I knew Rod would read it if it was in a newspaper.

"It may be that Julie Myerson had tried to talk to her son but this was the only way to make him realise that selling drugs to your siblings is wrong."