Deborah Orr: A freak show – but who is to blame?

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Chantelle Stedman became a mother this week at 15. But Britain, for a long time, has had the highest rate of teenage motherhood in Western Europe, so there's nothing very remarkable about that. Alfie Patten, the father of Chantelle's daughter, Maisie Roxanne, is only 13, though, and was 12 when the baby was conceived. So he is big news, in Britain and around the world.

The boy's situation is highly unusual, but not without precedent. Another British boy fathered a child in 1998, when he was 12, and created a similar stir. Girls have in recent years become pregnant as young as this too, or even younger. As in this case, such instances are usually reported pruriently, with hints and signals given about the fitness of the parents of these parent-children, amid a wider feeling that this is just the way that a problematic group of people lives.

Alfie's own father, Dennis, is reported as having nine children in all, and did not live with Alfie and his mother, Nicola. Chantelle's parents, Penny and Steve, are married and have four other children, but are said to live in council accommodation, and receive benefits. They are all, it is not so subtly intimated, the sort of people of whom this kind of thing is pretty much expected. The two children are from Eastbourne, East Sussex, and their social services department says that it will be offering ongoing support and advice. One is tempted to suggest that they have not managed very well so far, since the three, just days after the birth, have been featured so widely in the press.

A parent or guardian must sign a release form before children's photographs can be used by the media. Who signed off Maisie? Alfie? Chantelle? Who signed off Alfie and Chantelle? Dennis? Nicola? Penny? Steve? The very fact that this story is in the public domain is cause for concern. The concern should not be only about the wisdom of the families involved, but about a media culture that is no better at preserving the innocence of childhood than the individuals it seeks to criticise.

As for the argument that the story is in the public interest and will provoke essential debate, well, we have been having this debate for many years now, and it gets us nowhere. A representative of a pro-life group has commended the children's "courage" in rejecting an abortion, adding that "value-free sex education" is the problem. Is it so courageous to have a baby you cannot support? Would Alfie really not have known what sex was if he hadn't heard about it in the classroom?

Various internet commentators have noted that it is illegal to have sex under 16, and have asked why no prosecutions have occurred. Yet it is a barbaric society indeed that would charge a couple of frightened children with statutory rape of each other "as an example". The trouble with prosecution in this, and similar situations, is that it is deemed to be harming the children most of all.

Iain Duncan Smith has indicated that this case is another example of Britain's "complete collapse in some parts of society of any sense of what's right and wrong". Fair enough. Except that he also says he's not being "accusative". How can one say that a problem is caused by an ethical failure, yet not be "accusative"? In essence, all that he's saying is what is being implied in the press already, that this is just the way a group of problematic people lives.

As regular as clockwork, reports or books are published, warning of the poor quality of British childhoods. The notorious Unicef report of 2007, Sue Palmer's book Toxic Childhood, the Children's Society report last week – all these make similar points and offer similar warnings, about the difficulties being embedded in the wider culture and economy. Yet again and again, indignant and articulate parents, usually affluent ones, react defensively, insisting that their children are fine, and so are all the children they know.

But we know these three, or at least we know of them. We know them well enough to understand that the adults around them did not protect their childhoods, even when the media came knocking, eager to exploit their shortcomings, and unashamed about doing so. What responsible parent would subject their child to that? And what responsible adult would subject another person's child to it?

It takes an entire society to create an environment in which children can enjoy their childhoods. A society that stands aside while journalists and parents collude in making a freak show out of children's serious troubles, inviting widespread criticism, anger and disgust, but little more, has collectively lost the moral plot.

My own 11-year-old was eager to watch Channel 4's appalling series Girls and Boys Alone, having read about it in a free sheet he picked up on a bus. He asked me if I would let him take part in such a jolly jape, and when I pointed out that I was deeply troubled about even allowing him to watch the show, he took that as a no, and was crestfallen. But when he saw a little boy cry to be let out of the "village", only to be refused by his mother, he recognised the programme for the perverse tragedy that it was. Why can't Channel 4?

She shouldn't have to be a style icon

The redoubtable Michelle Obama, is on the cover of US Vogue. That's good, because the alternative is being on the cover of the National Enquirer, ridiculed for frumpy or tasteless attire. But that's bad too, because it illustrates how even the most intelligent and cautious of political wives – maybe especially the most intelligent and cautious – feel that it is a big strategic mistake to refuse to play the style game. Instead they must look nice, then be very demonstrably flattered and very publicly graceful when people say so.

Hirst is a brand – mess with it at your peril

Whatever else you might want to say about Damien Hirst, right, he knows how to protect his brand. A group of slightly more starving-in-the-garret-type artists has launched a campaign against the king of Brit Art, after he reported a 16-year-old to the Design and Artists Copyright Society, for selling a collage that included Hirst's diamond skull on the internet.

The teenager, who signs himself as Cartrain, is not the first person to have imagined that Hirst might be more simpatico than he actually is. In 1994, before Hirst was the artistic behemoth that he is today, Mark Bridger poured black ink into a vitrine containing a lamb, entitled Away from the Flock, at the Serpentine Gallery. He retitled it Black Sheep and fondly imagined that Hirst would approve. Instead the artist mounted a successful prosecution for criminal damage.

The artists ranked against Hirst include Jimmy Cauty, who burned a million pounds as a protest against the Turner Prize. Another is Billy Childish, who has maintained a long-standing and vocal antipathy to the Brit Art gang, through the agency of his own artistic movement the Stuckists.

The three men are all interesting and intelligent artists. Yet if they imagine they are going to embarrass Hirst, or even bother him much, they just don't understand that the adoption of an aggressive business model is as essential to Hirst as the adoption of yellow paint was to Van Gogh. Taking the money, protecting the assets, these are principles as dear to Hirst as the principles of other more romantic artists.

The spat pits sentiment against hard-headedness, and is just the sort of free entertainment that should be welcomed in a recession.

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