The Media Column: Why we sometimes have a right to know about Blair's bowel movements

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The Independent Online

My favourite part of the Daily Mirror, now that the memory of the royal Tupperware is fading, is a small corner of the 3am Girls' daily gossip column called "Surveillance". It is rarely more than 100 words long, and each of those words is entirely pointless, which is its great joy. It is a list of (famous) people and the (usually humdrum) places in which they have been spotted. The details are sent in by readers - "Text the girls for just 3p" - and are curiously engrossing.

Maybe you missed it yesterday, in which case you will not be up to speed on the key sightings of the day: "Natalie Appleton and Donna Air buying Krispy Kreme doughnuts at Harrods... Kylie getting her hair done in Urban Retreat... Les Dennis walking his dog in Regent's Park." I consider it the Court Circular of the China White classes.

But what if the Mirror's eye were to stray beyond the doughnut stall and the hair salon, and into the doctor's surgery? What if the surveillance in question were "Margaret Hodge on the gynaecologist's couch" or "Tony Blair at the cardiac specialist"?

Last Thursday, the paper ran a front page on something very close to that - albeit that the doctor came scurrying round to Tony's place, rather than vice versa.

"Exclusive: New Blair health scare - specialist dashes to No 10 after stomach agony", declared the headline, above a report that "Tony Blair needed urgent medical treatment after falling ill at No 10 yesterday." The story was, of course, followed up in later editions of all the other papers.

The truth now appears to be - I say "appears to be", because Downing Street does not seem always to be telling the full truth on such matters - that Mr Blair's health scare was a minor inconvenience, not a sign of anything serious. But No 10 was not happy that the details leaked out at all (apparently from a source at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, which had been approached to find a bed for Mr Blair should he have needed it). It would have preferred that the doctor's visit had remained private, given that he discovered nothing troublesome at the end of the Prime Ministerial stethoscope.

Downing Street did, of course, issue a statement, reluctantly, about 90 minutes after reporters first began making enquiries. But not before initially dismissing the story out of hand - playing its usual trick of declaring a story nonsense if one or two details that are put to it are incorrect. (Reporters had heard - incorrectly - that the PM was undergoing surgery.)

The feeling among political hacks is that Downing Street would not have volunteered anything if it could have kept the news to itself - despite the fact that at the time of the incident the PM and his advisers clearly thought the incident serious enough to summon a specialist across London on the back of a motorcycle taxi in an effort to bypass the capital's daily rush-hour gridlock.

At Thursday's regular press lobby meeting, the Prime Minister's official spokesman was pressed on the issue of what, if anything, we will be told if the Prime Minister falls ill again. These were "subjective issues", reporters were told. Downing Street will make "appropriate judgements about what information to put out on a case-by-case basis". But "an individual is entitled to some privacy in relation to medical issues - even if that individual is the Prime Minister."

Hmmm. Of course, the spokesman is right. You and I have no right to know the details of the state of Mr Blair's bowel movements or blood pressure - unless his ability to run the country is affected.

But we might trust Downing Street's ability to make the right call - that is, to act in the public interest, rather than in the private interest of the Prime Minister - if Mr Blair had shown a little more honesty the last time he fell ill.

Five weeks ago, when he was rushed to hospital with a heart murmur, the impression given by Downing Street, which was frantically pushing the line that the PM would be returning to work immediately at "full throttle", was that this was the first time his heart had ever given him cause for concern.

Yet now we know - albeit from two highly flimsy sources, Bill Clinton and the Queen - that Mr Blair has confessed in the past to a heart condition. ("I have known about this for a long time. He told me about it quite a few years ago," said Mr Clinton).

Here again, Downing Street issued a statement only once it knew reporters were on the trail. It claims now that it was preparing to tell the world at the very point that it received the first call, this time from the BBC. And perhaps it was.

One final thought: hospitals have become very leaky places, haven't they? You don't suppose that underpaid NHS workers have learnt what people within the police service have known for a very long time - that the minute a well-known face walks through the door, it's time to put a call through to the tabloids and wait for the cheque?