The 'Mirror' goes where the 'Mail' fears to tread

As the traditionally Labour-supporting paper takes on Ruth Kelly and Downing Street, the scene is set for a privacy vs public interest wrestling match
Click to follow

For some papers it was easy. It was hypocrisy; or the inability of state schools to deal with learning difficulties; or politicians failing to practise what they preached. But then it is always easy to follow. In this case it was The Mail on Sunday and the Daily Mirror that had to face up to the risks and take the difficult decisions. And as ever when the issue is privacy, the arm wrestler across the table is public interest.

It was a Mail on Sunday scoop, but it was a scoop without a name. It told of a cabinet minister deciding to send a child to a £15,000-a-year private school that specialised in handling the sort of learning difficulties the child was experiencing - in a way the local authority in which the child was currently receiving state education could not. But the front page story did not name the cabinet minister involved, or the child, or the school, or the local authority. This is not like The Mail on Sunday, or its daily stablemate - both titles are famous for breaking stories and have little reputation for extreme caution when so doing. Particularly when the story is unhelpful to Labour.

The Mail on Sunday explained its reticence: "Last night Downing Street and the minister made vigorous efforts to suppress the story. The Mail on Sunday is withholding the name of the minister, the child, the school and the exact nature of the learning difficulty which affects about 10 per cent of the population to protect the pupil's identity."

The first sentence of that "explanation" concealed much activity over the previous 24 hours. As soon as Ruth Kelly - for she was the cabinet minister - was made aware of the story that The Mail on Sunday was planning to run, she determined to stop it. Downing Street provided a member of the communications staff to help her. Representations were made to the newspaper, which at that stage seemed determined to go ahead with identifying the players in the story.

The Press Complaints Commission (PCC) was brought into the affair. Downing Street contacted it to seek advice on whether the PCC code of practice - the self-regulatory set of rules governing press standards - would be broken if the key names of people, schools and local authority were published. The PCC does not give pre-publication rulings; it is mindful of the fact that when it receives a call from somebody trying to prevent publication, it is hearing only one side of an argument. It explains the relevant parts of the code and the public-interest considerations that can override them. This is what it did on this occasion. It then, in line with its normal practice, contacted The Mail on Sunday to tell the paper of the contact it had had with Downing Street.

The PCC's involvement ended on Saturday afternoon. The Mail on Sunday, and Ms Kelly's representatives, were aware of the relevant parts of the code: "Everyone is entitled to respect for his or her private and family life"; "Young people should be free to complete their time at school without unnecessary intrusion"; "Editors must not use the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian as sole justification for publishing details of a child's private life". And they were aware of the public-interest argument that can justify sidelining these clauses - that in cases involving children under 16, editors "must demonstrate an exceptional public interest to override the normally paramount interest of the child".

On Saturday evening, the feeling at the PCC was that The Mail on Sunday would go ahead and publish the names and identifying details. The paper decided not to. The proper title of the PCC code of practice is the Editors' Code. Editors have drawn it up; they are collectively committed to respecting it. It is seen by many as the most effective weapon against statutory controls.

On Monday morning, while all the other papers, including the Daily Mail, were following up the story, and following The Mail on Sunday's no-name policy, the Daily Mirror published a front-page story under an "exclusive" tag: "Ruth Kelly's child sent to private school". The paper that is traditionally Labour's friend had gone where the paper that is traditionally Labour's enemy had feared to go. It had no contact with the PCC.

The Mirror explained why in a leader headlined: "Why Kelly had to be exposed".

"It is a matter of profound public interest when a cabinet minister and former education secretary takes one of her children out of the state sector and puts them in a £15,000-a-year private school.

"Ruth Kelly yesterday attempted to stifle public knowledge of her decision ... We believe you have a right to know when those who run crucial public services - and repeatedly tell us how much they are improving - conclude they are actually failing their own families and can then afford to opt out. As education secretary, Ms Kelly preached that state schools could meet the needs of all children - but evidently she does not believe that is true."

Once the Mirror had published, it was open season for everybody else, including the Daily Mail. Radio 4's Today programme majored on the Kelly story, interviewing her successor as Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, who was less than whole-heartedly supportive of his colleague, and David Cameron, who showed how he has grown as a politician by saying that Ms Kelly could not be criticised because, as far as he knew, Labour was not opposed to private education.

From The Guardian and the Telegraph, to the Express and The Sun, all the papers ran spreads on the story on Tuesday, with the word hypocrisy much in evidence. Fortunately for Ms Kelly, John Reid and President George Bush then dominated the news agenda, pushing the £25,000-a-year taxable income she has to find for school fees into the background.

On Thursday, Ms Kelly formally referred the Daily Mirror to the PCC, which will now have to switch from helpful advice and adjudicate. It will reflect that things have moved on from the skirmishes over the privacy of the Blair children when The Mail on Sunday is giving such serious consideration to the code.

Clearly this is a more important case than that concerning the privacy of the next queen but one. But whether the privacy of a cabinet minister who in her previous job supported placing children with learning difficulties in mainstream schools, and who can afford the huge costs of going private, should be protected on behalf of her son is another matter.