The press, prejudices - and private affairs

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Indy Politics

When Britain's third most powerful politician - a left-wing bruiser with an authoritarian streak that has earned him the plaudits of the right-wing press - fell out with his lover, the glamorous publisher of Britain's leading high Tory magazine, it was always going to strain Fleet Street's political loyalties.

When Britain's third most powerful politician ­ a left-wing bruiser with an authoritarian streak that has earned him the plaudits of the right-wing press ­ fell out with his lover, the glamorous publisher of Britain's leading high Tory magazine, it was always going to strain Fleet Street's political loyalties.

Although the affair between David Blunkett and Kimberly Quinn had apparently gone on for three years, it was only in August that news of it began to be aired in sections of the media. Although the end of the affair saw Mr Blunkett begin a battle for access to Mrs Quinn's two-year-old son, William, sections of the press decided ­ in a way that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago ­ that this was a private matter. Among them was The Independent.

But with The Sunday Telegraph's revelations this week, that changed. The accusations that the Home Secretary had improperly used his office ­ particularly over a visa to Mrs Quinn's nanny ­ catapulted the private matters into the public domain, and opened the floodgates. What has followed is a bewildering array of opinions from columnists cherrypicking from pieces of information which are uncontested, and building edifices of prejudice around them.

What one writer might see as Mr Blunkett's understandable desire to see the boy he has long believed to be his son is to another vindictive and hurtful. The suspicion is often that politics ­ party more than sexual ­ governs the writer's outpourings rather than a dispassionate analysis of the facts. And is it right that individuals make such sweeping statements on the private aspects of the affair?

Quite whether the private life of the Home Secretary was fit meat for the press was raised by Stephen Glover of the Daily Mail, his own newspaper a firm admirer of Mr Blunkett's social agenda, as well as his "inner steel". Yet now the Mail has found itself at the forefront of reporting revelations which appear, on first reading, to bolster the case against Mr Blunkett.

Justifying the investigations which led to the latest deluge of allegations, Mr Glover wrote: "The idea that a politician's private life is no business at all of the media is mistaken ... private experience may influence public action. Because we live in a democracy, we have an interest in knowing if it has."

Melanie Phillips, scourge of liberals everywhere, reached a similar conclusion. Mr Blunkett was "one of the few Labour politicians with any depth and thoughtfulness". But, she bemoaned, "it is hard to judge Mr Blunkett's behaviour as anything other than obsessive".

If the twice-married Spectator publisher thought she would get sisterly understanding, she has been forced to think again. Jane Moore in The Sun wrote: "Kimberly ... has come out
biting, scratching and hair-pulling, seemingly hell-bent on trying to destroy Blunkett's political career."

It was an understanding shared for Mr Blunkett in the newspaper's leader column. "A lonely figure dedicated to a gruelling job saw ahead the joyful prospect of happy family life," it said. "Mrs Quinn wants the Home Secretary out of her life, and is trying to make him give up access by accusing him of misusing his authority when they were together. Some people would call that blackmail."

Mrs Quinn has been on the receiving end of other withering and vitriolic attacks from women columnists. Apparently happy to judge her on the print evidence, The Independent's Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writing in the Evening Standard, demanded: "Will nobody condemn Kimberly Quinn? Even in these morally lawless times, when guilt and shame are emotions of interest only to anthropologists, the busy sexual arrangements of Mrs Quinn are quite spectacular."

Vanessa Feltz, whose marriage dissolved under the public gaze, also applied the stripes to Mrs Quinn's back. "By rights," she wrote in the Daily Express, "... this unprincipled, self-serving woman should be eating the bread of affliction and pummelling on her husband's locked door in tears and rags. If there was an ounce of justice in this world, this 21st-century harlot would be in the stocks at Piccadilly Circus, being pelted with rotten eggs by snarling yokels."

The Mail on Sunday took a similar tack. Margaret Cook, the former wife of Mr Blunkett's former cabinet colleague Robin Cook branded Mrs Quinn "duplicitous, disloyal and selfish".

For Johann Hari, in yesterday's Independent, Mr Blunkett's sex life could tell little of his true character. "When you consider the really terrible things Blunkett has done with just a fraction of the press attention ­ reintroducing internment, attacking jury trials, abusing asylum-seekers ­ it looks pathetically irrelevant."

In The Observer, which along with its sister paper The Guardian has largely refrained from passing comment on the affair, Mary Riddell described it as the "ultimate irony" that Mr Blunkett, a politician with a penchant for intervening in others' private lives should be "brought to the point of nemesis by his own".

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