Mr Miliband must be allowed his privacy

All the Milibands have done is to adopt a baby boy whose mother, we must assume, could not bring him up herself
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The Independent Online

The excitement is building up. Trained and hungry hounds from the media are sniffing the air, pumping up for another chase, another kill. Emboldened by the scalping of David Blunkett, they want the head of another Blairite minister, another David as it happens, David Miliband, the intellectual and impossibly boyish-looking minister now in the Cabinet Office.

Only this time, the hounding is absolutely unjustified and shames my profession. Blunkett had an intemperate affair with a married woman, a Tory publisher no less (several sins already), and was then found to have granted Mistress Quinn favours which were questionable and were rightly investigated. There can be no doubt that the erstwhile Home Secretary showed a dangerous lack of judgement, and compromised his own powerful position and the regulations which help to prevent political corruption.

Other New Labour heads have rolled over misleading statements on financial arrangements, unhealthy friendships with dodgy billionaires, and passport matters. It was right and proper that Peter Mandelson and Keith Vaz and Beverley Hughes had to answer questions, and that under the Tories, Neil Hamilton, Jonathan Aitken and Jeffrey Archer paid the price when they were found to be lying to the nation about their "private" affairs.

Cecil Parkinson and David Mellor also had to go after they were found to be unreliable husbands, a fate that should have been forced on Robin Cook when he was discovered to be an adulterer. The personal and the political were inextricably knotted together in each of these cases. Individuals capable of cold-hearted deception in the private sphere are perceived as untrustworthy in their chosen public roles. Others who should have gone after lying disgracefully to the country over Iraq remain in place.

What has Miliband done in comparison? I feel grubby having to describe it because, in this instance, I agree with Margaret Hodge that it is a "deeply personal matter". From what we know (which is more than we should) Mr Miliband's wife, Louise Shackelton, 43, a violinist with the London Symphony Orchestra, had a miscarriage not long ago. In December the couple went to the US to witness the birth of a baby boy they have adopted and brought back to Britain.

Ms Shackelton has US citizenship, and in America there is a fast-track option enabling families to adopt more speedily than is possible here. Surrogacy is different, yet there is no indication from the parents whether this is a surrogacy or an adoption.

Now the minister is having to face a baying pack, barking intrusive and ugly questions, led by the unappealing Teresa May, the Tory "family spokesperson". She demands to know if the couple have had any preferential treatment, and other commentators are suggesting that this adoption is similar to that of the Kilshaws, the Welsh couple who were caught trying to adopt twins through the internet. Why did Miliband go to America? Are our babies not good enough? Anyone wishing to adopt from abroad has to obtain an eligibility certificate from a casework team at the Department of Education, which is where Miliband was a minister. The stench of sleaze fills the nostrils. Of some.

Of course, these objectors claim they are only doing this a) in the public interest or b) in the best interests of the child. An expert (very earnest I am sure) from the British Association for Adoption and Fostering has come out with such ignorant bombast she should be smacked, then sacked. "You have to ask why he has gone to America. We do not believe it is in the best interests of the child or the mother to have them removed so quickly," says BAAF's Erica Amende, who presumably knows little about the couple, the birth mother or the specifics of the case.

In many ways this encounter between politicians and the press may do us all an invaluable service by forcing both sides to examine and clarify exactly what is legitimate for the press to scrutinise and where privacy kicks in even for a politician - even politicians such as Tony Blair, who use their families for political gain when it suits them. If we journalists get too turned on by the prospect of a kill for its own sake, we will deservedly lose all credibility and this will then undermine respectable and crucial investigative journalism.

I do not agree with the likes of John Lloyd, who argues for alarming political compliance in his book What the Media are Doing to Our Politics. But there are limits to how much "freedom" journalists can claim to disrupt and destroy the lives of politicians, who have a right to shut out our prying eyes if they are not suspected of any crime or definable serious transgression or rank hypocrisy.

Miliband and Shackelton are not, I think, charged with any of these. Who have they harmed or wilfully coerced? They have adopted a baby, Isaac, whose mother, we must assume, could not bring him up herself. One has to trust the birth mother's instincts and decisions - she allowed the couple to be present at the birth. There had to be considerable trust present, too.

Whatever the arrangements, it must have been a very hard moment to let go of the child so soon after birth, and the grieving will probably go on a long time. Research shows that even when mothers are eager to give up their babies for adoption, most of them experience profound loss, physical and emotional. They need to adjust in private, to mourn, to feel good about themselves again. How does it help the birth mother of young Isaac if the adoption becomes public property in the hands of reporters who understand none of this?

And the difficult journey has only just begun for the Miliband family. Adoption is a never a fairy story which always ends happily ever after, although that is how it is mythologised. A few years back I wrote Mixed Feelings, a book on mixed-race Britons, and during the research I met many adopted children and their birth and adoptive parents. I had, until then, never understood just what a complicated, fraught, delicate, unpredictable and awesome business this is. Even when it works wonderfully, there are lurking demons and unseen feelings which stalk the people concerned and catch them out unexpectedly.

The rewards can be plentiful for all concerned, but successful adoption demands absolute commitment, superhuman patience and the gods on your side. The joy and relief of finally getting the child you have been waiting for is immeasurable, but the reality is harder, which is why post-adoption centres are as overstretched as they are.

Onora O'Neill, the head of Newham College and 2002 Reith lecturer, warns us: "Where the media casually depict office-holders in public, commercial and professional life as self-interested and corrupt, citizens cannot judge for themselves which accusations are true, so are disabled." So disabled that they no longer have faith in democracy itself nor in what the media tells them, because journalists no longer distinguish enough between real political scandals and private matters which are not their business to invade.

And if the latest merciless chase results in a talented minister such as David Miliband giving up on his political aspirations, good and decent journalists should feel utterly debased by their own profession.