Rod Liddle: Private lives are now public property

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The Independent Online

We don't like our politicians very much. In the premier league of professionals against whom we have festering grievances, they're at the top, just above the lawyers and the journalists. It was not always like this. In the past we mistrusted them, of course, and envied them their power, suspected their motives and salivated about their sex lives. But these were human frailties that we could also detect in ourselves.

Now, though, we've got a big, new stick with which to beat them: "spin". It is no longer the case that the politicians are to be simply mistrusted; now, their obsession with image and presentation and the surface of things makes them appear different from the rest of us and lacking all sincerity. Jo Moore's dazzling email of 11 September was the purest expression of this new political trait – and the public found it particularly repulsive.

And then, one politician goes and has a baby, a tiny little baby, helpless and adored, and suddenly we like him very much indeed. My guess is that Gordon Brown's political stock rose by quite a few points upon the announcement of Jennifer Jane's birth. I'd guess that it rose a whole sackful more when he appeared in front of the cameras with a smile so broad and so palpably un-spun that it appeared to some of us – who are more used to the jowly grimace as he recites again and again those five economic tests for joining the European single currency – as frankly startling.

As a politician, the Chancellor's public persona was one of high intelligence but also a degree of aridity. That changed the moment Jennifer Jane entered the world. You can't be arid with a baby in your arms; not even Sir Stafford Cripps would have pulled that off. Now we're happy for Gordon and we share in his delight and, crucially, he has that thing from us which so few politicians ever obtain: our empathy. He is, in short, a much more formidable – and attractive – proposition since the birth of his daughter.

That's the good news. But little Jennifer Jane, the tiny mite still in her incubator, has become essentially commodified. She is already, through no fault of her joyous parents, a political animal. The reason is this, I think: ideology has been banished from the political arena for so long now that we find it hard to remember a time when politicians propounded a particular policy because of an immutable, holistic world view, with such things as cost and public opinion as merely secondary matters. That's not the sort of thing politicians do any more. What we're left with instead – as fewer and fewer of us queue up outside the polling station – is the chance to judge competing groups of pragmatists on the grounds of administrative competence and attractiveness. And, of those two qualities, attractiveness is the easier to define and far more compelling.

So babies being very attractive things, and attractive things being something to be presented to the public with alacrity, the line between the public and the private becomes more and more blurred. At the Today programme we've always been rather sniffy about covering such uncontentious happy events as the birth of a child. Maybe if Gordon had given birth himself, prurience would have got the better of us. But, by and large, we don't go there, and the BBC has strict guidelines which would, in any case, prevent us from doing so. The corporation takes the concept of privacy of the individual very seriously. But, watching the coverage of the birth of Jennifer Jane Brown, one begins to wonder if we are approaching a time when, for politicians, the notion of privacy will be abolished – a singularly unpleasant idea first mooted, you may remember, by Malcolm Bradbury's vile sociologist Dr Howard Kirk in The History Man. Then, it was a black joke; it looks real now.

But today, the future for Jennifer Jane is fairly easy to foretell. Quite apart from the mere fact of her existence being something that subtly, but definitively, alters the political landscape, there are the more direct questions that will certainly be asked and for which the criteria for assessing what is a public matter and what is intrusion into a private life are far less clear.

Will she be getting her MMR jab, for example? The safety, or otherwise, of this vaccination was an issue we pursued pretty much relentlessly over the past two years. Probably as a consequence, then, we decided that it was, indeed, legitimate to inquire of government ministers whether or not they had had their own offspring vaccinated. Ministers should follow the advice of government policy, shouldn't they, we asked – although a little uneasily, knowing that there was a public-private boundary somewhere nearby but uncertain as to whether or not we'd crossed it.

And, then, when Jennifer breaks something with wilful intent in Number 11, or maybe Number 10 by then, how will she be chastised? Will she be smacked? Do we have any right to know? Isn't this another area where policy intrudes on private life?

Where will she go to school? Will her mum and dad work full-time? And, as the years roll on, will there be a first spliff or alcopop binge and what should we do if there is?

The spin doctors will argue, on each occasion: no, it's a private matter; this is not merely intrusive, it's also dumbing-down. But they will also, on judiciously chosen occasions, let slip heartwarming details from the pristine family lives of their charges. There will be bashful references in speeches; there will be the inevitable family photographs. Are these things an invasion of privacy? Do we accept what we're given and press no further, despite the fact that it may not be the whole picture or, indeed, is a picture relevant only to the extent that it enhances the profile of the politician? The line between public and private life is blurring and dissolving before our eyes. The announcement of Jennifer Jane's birth was reported by the Press Association in an urgent, one-line flash, as they do with the start of a war or the guilty verdict from a celebrity court case. That was when I began to worry.

Rod Liddle is editor of BBC Radio 4's 'Today' programme.

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