Not-so-happy families in the glare of the flashgun

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The Independent Online
Norma Major's call yesterday for strengthened privacy laws, following the paparazzi intrusion into her family holiday, is likely to find warm support among other hassled and harried celebrities.

But the daughter of one Cabinet minister admitted yesterday that the relationship between famous people and the press is not that simple. According to Annabel Heseltine, long lenses are actually the least of the problems for children of star politicians.

In an interview with Sir David Frost yesterday, Mrs Major appeared to be reflecting concern that the personal lives of her own two children have been exposed to a fierce public glare since her husband became Prime Minister. As well as the coverage of their son James's relationship with the divorcee Elaine Jordache, the Majors were pursued by paparazzi this summer while taking a holiday on a yacht.

"I rather resent [the loss of privacy] when it encroaches on the family because I think we should be entitled to a family life without the prying eye," Mrs Major said. "If you're doing something which is obviously private, and I think holiday is obviously private . . . I think anybody [is] entitled to an element of privacy," she said.

It is, on the face of it, a fair argument. But as with the Royal Family, the relationship between press and politicians is increasingly complicated. In fact, there appears to be a growing trend among politicians to involve their children in their own publicity.

It began in the Sixties when the Kennedys fuelled the Camelot myth with pictures of little John Jnr and Caroline. By 1977, newspapers were reporting that Jimmy Carter's daughter Amy had been 12 minutes late for school; even the Clintons, who made a point of "shielding" the gawky Chelsea are now brandishing her as their latest weapon on the campaign trail.

Over here we have seen John Gummer publicly feeding hamburger to his four-year-old daughter to demonstrate his faith in beef, John Patten, as the Secretary of State for Education, walking his daughter to school, and Chris Patten, in Hong Kong, allowing "Lauramania" following pictures of his teenage daughter's legs.

And then, of course, there was the time David Mellor brought his two young boys out for a "happy family" snap.

Annabel Heseltine, who has been the subject of extensive press coverage, argued yesterday that politicians' children will inevitably be held up against their parents' public utterances. "The only time I've ever been pictured with my father [for political purposes] was when he was campaigning on the premiership elections in 1990. I was 27 and didn't mind at all - we wanted to give him every support possible," she said.

"The problem is that politicians are constantly making statements and then the children get held up as a result. Like Nicholas Scott's daughter [who received press coverage after criticising her father for his role in scuppering the Civil Rights Bill]. She was trying to do something she was doing before he became minister for the disabled," she said.

She said she had never experienced "the long-lens stuff" but admitted that there had been a period in her life where the press coverage had become uncomfortable - particularly when she started to have boyfriends. But it was not the long lenses that affected her; the "really upsetting thing" was the acquaintances who would phone newspapers with stories about her.

"I was 16 and at school the first time I was in a newspaper. Someone must have called them up and the next thing there was this ridiculous comment in a Dempster column saying I was 'floating among the daffodils'. I was rather embarrassed," she said.

"From that point onward, until I was about 24, wherever I went they did single me out but it rather depended on what my father was doing. It was a very difficult time and very difficult to cope. But that was nothing to do with my father and everything to do with the journalists," she said.

Later, she actively avoided places where she knew there would be "gossip" coverage. "But you still get caught. I went to a private party once, it was fancy dress and I went as a belly dancer. But Richard Young [an infamous paparazzo] was there and the next day my picture was in two newspapers. My parents saw it and asked me what I was doing, dressed like that."

A journalist herself, she does not believe that there are realistic curbs that can be introduced. And just as Norma Major yesterday said she had learned to "inoculate" herself against hurtful articles, Ms Heseltine believes the children are "trained" to cope.

"Politicians' children do learn very quickly. You know as soon as a journalist comes on the phone and very rapidly gauge whether to put the phone down. You learn that people aren't always as friendly as they seem."

The peculiar problem in being the child of a politician rather than a celebrity is that celebrities tend to be more popular. At school, James Major was apparently found scrapping following jibes about his father.

Ms Heseltine believed there were advantages to the coverage, even if it was intrusive. "It makes you stronger and slightly tougher. I think you learn to think before you speak. And you learn not to trust people . . . You're more cautious about picking your friends."

The alternative, she thought, was rather dull. "You can decide to go and live in the country, never go to a party, or have dinner, never risk anything and you probably will never be talked about. But it's up to you how you wish to live your life."