Boycott's battle and Buttle's baby: spot the crime

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The Independent Online
FIRST she was a "miracle mum", astonishing everyone with the news that she had given birth to a healthy boy at the age of 60. Then the man who was supposed to be the baby's father left her, transforming her into Britain's oldest single mum. Last week, as the saga of Elizabeth Buttle continued to unfold, the Daily Express revealed that her baby was the result of in vitro fertilisation, and relatives promptly denounced her as "despicable".

Mrs Buttle's rise to fame and fall from grace has been bewilderingly rapid, even by contemporary standards. On Friday, she relegated President Clinton's Williegate scandal to an inside page of the Express, allowing it to lead with the headline: "So who is the real mother?" The paper accused Mrs Buttle of using her daughter as an egg donor, a claim the woman denies.

"I am left wondering whether my gran's baby is my uncle or my half-brother," Mrs Buttle's grandson said. Another relative, Kate Espley, insisted her aunt-by-marriage was 'a devious and deceitful woman. I last saw her when she turned up at granny's funeral. She had a ring in her nose. That speaks volumes about the sort of woman she is." Mrs Buttle's ex-husband, Gordon Pleavin, was equally vituperative: "I always knew she was a bad woman, but I never thought she would stoop so low."

With relatives like these, it's hard to see why Mrs Buttle ever contemplated extending her large and quarrelsome family. But once you strip away the veneer of modernity - test tube baby, complex familial relationships, single motherhood - this is an old story in which a woman's reputation is shown to hang by a thread. "Loss of virtue in a female is irretrievable", as a character observes in Pride and Prejudice.

Mrs Buttle's situation has changed very little in recent days; she is still the elderly mother of a baby, and probably in need of more support than women who give birth in more conventional circumstances. We may question the wisdom of her decision to seek fertility treatment, and the eagerness of doctors to supply it, but Mrs Buttle's baby is two months old. He is not going to go away.

What Mrs Buttle has lost is her reputation, which renders her fair game for all manner of slurs. (A ring in her nose? At her age? The slut!) What's more, she has transgressed in relation to a subject on which commentators hold strong opinions. Like Mandy Allwood, she conceived in circumstances which initially thrilled the tabloids and blinded them to the reality of her situation; a natural pregnancy at 60 is about as likely as the Virgin Birth.

But pregnancy has become a freak show in which records - oldest mother, youngest mother, largest multiple birth - matter more than the health of the principals. Journalists are astonishingly credulous on this score and, like anyone who believes in miracles, prone to outbursts of anger when their trust turns out to have been misplaced. Where this leaves Mrs Buttle, we can only conjecture. But we should not pretend that the tabloid game of "whose baby?" does anything other than damage people whose actions suggest they are frighteningly vulnerable in the first place.

BY CHANCE, another story last week provides us with an opportunity to compare the way in which men and women are treated in this vital matter of reputation. The former England and Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott was convicted in Grasse on Tuesday of beating up his ex-girlfriend, Margaret Moore. Boycott, who did not turn up for the hearing and has the right to appeal, was sentenced to three months in prison, suspended for five years, and a fine of pounds 5,100.

On Thursday, he took the extraordinary step of calling a press conference at the offices of the Sun newspaper, presumably a venue he found more amenable than a French court. "Boycott: I didn't bowl my ex-maiden over" was how the Daily Mail reported the story on Frday. Simon Heffer wrote that "there was no doubting the sincerity of his protestations of innocence; for all his faults, Boycott has no reputation as a liar, and he seemed full of unmanufactured indignation at the allegations against him".

Admitting that Boycott might be in "a state of deep denial", Heffer brightened up at the thought that "Mrs Moore herself is a bit flaky". His evidence? She chose Geoffrey Boycott as a boyfriend. As a way of getting someone off the hook, this is ingenious; as a piece of reasoning, it is likely to convince only devoted cricket fans, whose mental state I questioned in this column a couple of weeks ago.

The Sun printed Boycott's version of the row which left Mrs Moore's face bruised and eyes swollen: "He claimed she CLIMBED on to a ledge and threatened to kill herself, THREW his suits, jackets and shoes out of the window, and then PUNCHED and KICKED him in a fury," I suppose that explains her injuries, then. It also shows the willingness of journalists to give famous men the benefit of the doubt.

"For a while yesterday... it was surprisingly easy to see [Boycott] as a victim," Simon Heffer remarked on Friday. Easy for whom? A detached observer is more likely to conclude that sportsmen can rely on their professional reputations to get them out of trouble. Geoffrey Boycott, Paul Gascoigne and Frank Bruno have all been accused of violence to women. Fortunately for their careers, they have never been caught doing anything really dreadful - like becoming a single mother at 60.

CAN I make it clear, at this point, that this column has not been written by Alan Clark MP? He has not supplied as much as a comma, even though the byline at the top is, I admit, misleading. My name may be there, just as Peter Bradshaw's was when he wrote a spoof of Mr Clark's diary in the London Evening Standard, but the High Court ruled last week that readers were confused and believed they were getting the real thing.

What kind of readers they were, or how many, I cannot imagine. Clearly, though, it is not enough to say who has written an article. Readers need a list of who did not write it, so here goes: Alan Clark, Anthea Turner, Liam Gallagher and the Teletubbies have contributed nothing to my observations. Look out for more exciting disclaimers next Sunday.