Children caught in the line of fire

Mr Blunkett is portrayed as a man willing to place the responsibilities of fatherhood above his ambition for high office
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The Independent Online

Earlier this month, the Press Complaints Commission gave a ruling on a complaint by Kimberly Fortier, the publisher of The Spectator, who claimed that a photograph of herself and her toddler son had been obtained as a result of harassment and had been an intrusion into her privacy. The PCC ruled that Mrs Fortier, who had been photographed on a street in Los Angeles, was in a public place at the time the photograph was taken. It also ruled that the photographer had not engaged in "intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit", but had stopped taking pictures when Mrs Fortier asked him to.

Earlier this month, the Press Complaints Commission gave a ruling on a complaint by Kimberly Fortier, the publisher of The Spectator, who claimed that a photograph of herself and her toddler son had been obtained as a result of harassment and had been an intrusion into her privacy. The PCC ruled that Mrs Fortier, who had been photographed on a street in Los Angeles, was in a public place at the time the photograph was taken. It also ruled that the photographer had not engaged in "intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit", but had stopped taking pictures when Mrs Fortier asked him to.

Finally, it suggested that a picture of Mrs Fortier and her son was part of a story that "contributed to the public debate", because it had recently been revealed that Mrs Fortier had been conducting an affair with the Home Secretary, David Blunkett. Because of his position as a guardian of the nation's morals, the commission believed, his mistress should have expected some public interest in their relationship.

Mr Blunkett does not agree that his private life should be a matter for public speculation, and has not commented on the affair, which was first reported in in the summer. Until now, The Independent has not reported the matter either, on the grounds that what consenting adults do in private is indeed their own affair. No one so far has seen fit to comment on whether a two-year-old can expect to have his privacy respected whatever it is that the adults around him get up to, even though that would surely be a pretty good rule of thumb in this actually not terribly "child centered" world.

Anyway, there did not seem to be much reason to bang on about the little one's privacy, when the adults in his life appeared to be trying hard to consolidate the family unit around him. Mrs Fortier has broken off her affair with Mr Blunkett, and is concentrating on her marriage to Stephen Quinn, who believes he is the father of both the two-year-old and the expected baby.

But a report in Sunday's News of the World has changed all that. The newspaper alleges, and no denial has been issued from the Home Office, that Mr Blunkett has now launched a legal bid to establish paternity of Mrs Fortier's two-year-old as well as her unborn child. It may well be that the prurient examination of adult sexual affairs must be tolerated in the name of a free press. But this latest press intrusion - into the privacy of a toddler and his unborn baby sibling - is surely an intrusion too far.

I am not a subscriber to the attitude that extra-marital affairs are the private business of individuals, especially not when children are involved. Such affairs are often extremely damaging to children - not least because they trigger such hostility from the betrayed adults who are usually - though not in this case - left at home looking after them.

It is damaging to children, as well, to have the dirty laundry of their parents splattered all over the press, and to have their own right to a private family life flouted in this way. Even though the Quinn children are very young, this issue is of basic relevance to the very fabric of their existence and may surface again when they are older. There is no decent reason at all why speculation about their parentage should be used to sell "family" newspapers.

Of course, all the pitiless moralists keen to hear the next instalment in this sorry saga can argue that the adults involved in this drama should have thought about that in the first place. That's true enough. But since, clearly, they didn't, then that is no reason publicly to scrutinise the antecedents of the children involved.

In its front-page, follow-up report yesterday, the Daily Mail was keen to lionise Mr Blunkett. He has been portrayed as a man willing to place the responsibilities of fatherhood above his ambition for high office. Much emphasis is placed on the fact that he wants to make a financial contribution, and that he wants contact. He is praised because he is not willing to slink off happy that his former mistress isn't going to make the children an issue, as other men might.

Mrs Quinn is admired by the Daily Mail less. It is suggested that she could have assisted Mr Blunkett in resolving the paternity issue quietly, but that she has been "unco-operative". It's an interesting angle, this one that justifies the intrusion because the affair involves a public figure, only to conclude when the mud has been raked that the public figure's morals are, happily, splendid, while the person no one had previously heard of except as the publisher of a magazine known almost exclusively for the tendency of its staff to have selfish, deceptive extra-marital affairs, becomes the threat to public morals.

Certainly, it appears that Mr Blunkett had hopes that his relationship with Mrs Quinn would be more than just an affair. It is sad, of course, that the man is so disappointed. But at the same time he did collude in deceiving another man, who had a right to expect there to be no confusion over whether he was the father of his new wife's baby.

As for Mrs Quinn, well, I don't think very many people admire at all a woman who has got herself into difficulties over who fathered her baby. Is all this our business? The particulars may not be. But the larger picture - which illustrates fairly clearly how starting families and having affairs do not mix terribly well - is worth looking at.

Again and again, the reporting of extra-marital affairs is justified most pompously when those infidelities involve politicians. But it turns out that few people seem to share the newspapers' belief that they are on a moral crusade in doing so. Even Michael Howard, the leader of the Conservative Party, suggested - while dealing with another scandal involving staff at The Spectator - that deceiving your wife and your children is fine, as long as you don't deceive him as well.

I am angered by Mr Blunkett's contradictory attitude, whereby his illiberal reforms at the Home Office demand that everybody should be prepared to live in what was dubbed some years back "the transparent society", except when their sexual desires are causing harm to others. Why should we accept that we have nothing to fear from surrendering to identity cards, government access to computer records and the like, when the man asking us to do so can't even retire gracefully when he tries and fails to break up a marriage?

I don't accept that he has the right to conduct an affair with the high-profile married publisher of a right-wing magazine, then be amazed when the papers want to report it. I don't accept either that the sexual incontinence of a couple who aren't sure who has fathered what child deserves to be excused as something it's up to them to deal with on their own terms.

But I do think that the papers should endeavour to behave a little bit better than those they judge in this way, and at least keep the children out of it. Since they again and again prove that they can't, then it really is time for strict privacy laws to exist for under-18s that are abided by scrupulously unless the right to make an exception has been granted by the courts.

d.orr@independent.co.uk

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