Cherie's just doing her job : Another View

The attack in the Independent on Sunday on Cherie Booth, the barrister wife of the Labour leader Tony Blair, must have left many readers gobsmacked (as they say in certain Tory circles). The paper laid into her for recommending that a court take a tough line with a "penniless" poll tax defaulter and - worse still, in the eyes of the Sindy - for giving a lecture on enforcement to the Institute of Revenue, Rating and Valuation Officers. In other words, the lady was going about her lawful and, for a n advocate, unremarkable business.

The paper asked if it was right to castigate - "scrutinise" was the word it used - the career and actions of a wife who has no political ambitions. Yes, it concluded. But is it?

The public certainly has a right to know that poll tax defaulters are still being pursued in the courts, and sometimes imprisoned. There are also legitimate questions to be asked about the rights and wrongs of imprisonment in cases where those accused are impecunious.

But the suspicion is that this story was carried only because Cherie Booth is married to Tony Blair. Had the Sindy wanted to draw attention to the plight of poll tax defaulters, it could and should have used other lawyers and other cases in addition to the Booth example. Or is Cherie Booth using her impeccable connections with Labour councils to corner the market in poll tax prosecutions for her law firm? If so, where is the evidence?

The fact is that newspapers still tend to see women in terms of their men. Wife of, daughter of, mother of: but not people in their own right. The Sindy is in danger of giving political correctness a good name.

There is no doubt that people are interested in the wives of political leaders. And if they support their husbands by appearing on public platforms with them, comment is inevitable. It is also true they have the potential to influence their spouses. Pillow talk, it used to be called. In the era of the Clintons, that kind of influence can be more upfront. Had Cherie been trying to persuade her husband to pursue a harsh policy on poll tax defaulters, the criticism would have been above board.

What is not justifiable is to blow up something a barrister does as part of her job and use it to make a political attack on her spouse - particularly as Cherie Booth has been attacked for helping to enforce the law of the land. Does the Sindy think it acceptable to break the law? And what of all those hard-pressed people who scrimped so that they could obey the law and pay the iniquitous poll tax? Newspapers that seem to manufacture sleazy stories about spouses in order to make political points may undermine their own authority more than that of politicians. It is noteworthy that the Sindy could find only an obscure vicar to back up its story with a morally outraged quote.

Sue Cameron is a writer and broadcaster who is married to a Conservative MP.

We welcome contributions to `Another View', which should be faxed to the Editor on 0171-293 2022.