Leading article: We should not be distracted by celebrity and power

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Madonna is, of course, no stranger to controversy. In her long and successful artistic career she has often courted it. But it seems unlikely that the singer will have welcomed the outcry provoked by her latest project. When reports emerged last week that Madonna and her husband, the film director Guy Ritchie, had adopted a 13-month-old boy, David, from a Malawian orphanage, it was assumed the child would soon start a new life with his adopted parents in London.

But a legal challenge mounted by a coalition of child protection groups in Malawi appears to have thrown that process into some confusion. Last night the singer's spokeswoman revealed that only temporary custody has been awarded and the child appeared to have been flown out of the country but accusations remain that the Malawian High Court has waived the law against adoption by non-residents and fast-tracked the application.

We accept that many people will instinctively find this whole tale rather distasteful. Reports that Madonna chose the child from a selection of orphans presented to her make the whole affair sound worryingly like a commercial process; as if this was some sort of luxury item being acquired. Suspicions have also been aroused by the media circus surrounding the trip. Could this, some wonder, be an elaborate and cynical promotional exercise designed to raise the star's profile? Some have questioned Madonna's motives. Is she merely leaping thoughtlessly on to a trend set by other celebrities in recent years of adopting a child abroad? And if so, what guarantees are there that the child's welfare has been given proper consideration?

Others wonder about the broader message this sends out. If it does turn out that normal adoption procedures have been bypassed, it will be an embarrassing example of how easily the rules can be bent for wealthy white people in Africa. There is also a legitimate question of whether such interventions from Western celebrities actually distract attention from the continent's real problems. In short, people have discerned in this story all the unattractive aspects of human nature, from vanity and self-indulgence to insincerity and carelessness.

Yet a degree of compassion and understanding for all involved would be appropriate until the full facts surrounding this case emerge. We must remember that what is at stake here is the chance for a child of a better life than he could expect at home. We should note that David's father wishes the adoption to proceed. And Mirriam Nyirongo, a retired nurse who runs a different orphanage in the country, points to a broader truth: "We must be frank. We can't afford to look after the thousands of babies that are being orphaned every day." There are 900,000 orphans in Malawi, a nation of 13 million people. We must think carefully before concluding that David would be better off staying where he is.

As for Madonna's motives, we must not lose sight of the fact that she is planning to establish a $3m (£1.6m) care centre to provide food, education and shelter for 4,000 orphans in Malawi. Of course, Madonna is very rich, and it would indeed be objectionable if her wealth was the sole reason she was able to bypass the usual procedures. But, equally, her wealth should not count against her. If other couples are able to adopt a child abroad - and an increasing number do - there is no reason why Madonna and Mr Ritchie should be treated any differently.

This is an ethical controversy that extends some way beyond the privileged life of one high-profile couple. We should not be distracted by ephemeral questions of wealth and fame from the sensitive issue that has been exposed here.

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