Glare that marks for life

At the heart of the Sara Keays row lies the question: is it ever right to expose a child to the media?
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The Independent Online
Sara Keays, Lord Parkinson, the High Court and Brian Sedgemore MP have succeeded in creating an extraordinary tangle of legal barbed wire. Keays wants publicity for her handicapped daughter and her treatment. Parkinson, the father, does not and has the backing of the High Court that such publicity would not be in the child's interest. And Sedgemore, under protection of parliamentary privilege, has named the parties in a Commons motion backing Keays. Yesterday the media and lawyers were showing signs of hyperventilation when discussing the issue.

But what, beyond legal wrangles, is the issue? In essence it is this: how can children be used and who decides? In the Keays case, matters of politics and personality may be as important as general principles. But I cannot, under all this barbed wire, discuss them here, so I must stick to generalities.

The case has much in common with that of Jaymee Bowen. Known for a long time as "Child B", Bowen was refused NHS treatment for leukaemia. Legally she could not be named. But her father obtained private treatment and wished to pay for it by selling her story to the Daily Mirror. The Mirror would only do the story if Child B could be identified and, eventually, the courts agreed on the basis that the treatment, which might be life- saving, must constitute a greater good for the child than privacy.

But the belief that children ought to be protected from publicity is clearly well-founded. Publicity is a kind of absolute. It places you perpetually on the files of the media and, potentially, for the rest of your life it makes you recognisable. Like innocence, complete privacy once lost cannot be regained. In fact, the High Court injunction protecting the Keays child is known as a Mary Bell order. Bell, as an 11-year-old, killed two children in 1968. She now lives under a new identity, to protect her from her own childhood notoriety - a clear example of the permanence of a media "baptism".

Rightly, therefore, we assume that children should not be exposed. Children might not agree; most are dazzled by the idea of any kind of fame. But then many children probably want to drink, smoke, gamble or have sex. Publicity is like all of those things: habit-forming and life-changing. They all require a reasonably mature mind to grasp their implications. Making a child famous, as Michael Jackson should testify, is risky.

Pop fame, in general, is seen as good. Most parents, perhaps foolishly, would not resist. Legal or intimate fame or notoriety is different. In most of these cases the courts and parents would agree: protect the child. The memory of some celebrated case or scandal should not be allowed to taint the whole of a life.

But in both the Keays and the Bowen cases, courts and parents have been at odds. The courts have applied the ideal of privacy, one parent in each case has wanted publicity. Their argument has been that, in these unusual circumstances, publicity represents an indisputable good - it would help money to be raised for a desirable end or it would provide support for a worthy cause. So two apparent virtues collide: the protection of the child and the raising of money for beneficial medical treatment; the state's ideals versus those of the parents.

This notion of publicity as an absolute good is, in fact, central to our culture - as central, in its way, as our belief that children require protection. It is based on the democratic assumption that informing the people is intrinsically better than keeping them in ignorance and it is, to a greater or lesser extent, built into almost every type of institution. At its best it genuinely helps us to make informed decisions; at its worst it justifies the crudest exploitation. The nuts 'n' sluts shows on American television, in which victims are persuaded to reveal their most intimate lives, can claim that it is both psychologically healthy to reveal yourself and democratically desirable. The wrecked family, drunk on the momentary fame of television, can, in a sufficiently crazed democratic society, be made to seem as significant as the Watergate investigation.

The problem is that claims for the benefits of publicity can become very tenuous indeed. Obviously neither democracy nor human well-being is really served by the mad confessions on these television shows. But what about those cases on the evening news bulletins where police parade parents of missing children, often in tears, before the media?

These events are taken to be good things either because they might help find the child or because they will provide a warning for other parents. They are intended to use the emotions aroused by a child lost or perhaps in distress to achieve a specific end. The parents have decided to use the missing child and their own emotions to earn the co-operation of the media.

The media interest is clearly in the drama, the sensation, and the police would claim to be exploiting this interest for reasonable ends. The routine, however, has taken over, the event has become a convention, the appeal for help or the warning has become secondary, almost unnoticeable.

Sara Keays and Jaymee Bowen's father wished to break the legal protection of their children for a very definite reason. In both cases the claim is very clear: specific medical benefits will ensue from the publicity. They, as parents, have decided that these benefits outweigh the benefits of privacy.

This must be a subjective judgement. However calculable the benefits will be, nobody knows what price the children will pay for being famous. In addition, however honourable the motives in these cases, other parents might have less respectable reasons. They might expect to make money out of their child's fame, they may wish to settle some score, they may, like the nuts 'n' sluts, fancy the idea of being famous.

All of which is to say that there must be a strong public interest in the uses to which children are put, even when those uses appear to be obviously virtuous. The legal principle of parens patriae - which means that the state has a parental role towards its citizens - is a good one, even if it seems to conflict with the demands of liberty. Bizarre as it may sound, we are all, to some degree, children of the state.

In fact, this principle is more important than ever, to balance the increasing demands of publicity. Even the most libertarian observer must acknowledge that the extremes of media intrusion go far beyond the democratic right to know. This is bad enough when some adult is persecuted, intolerable when a child is involved.

Inevitably the lines are finely drawn. Children cannot be utterly protected and parents cannot be completely free to use them as they like. I don't know what justice in the Keays case would be, I'm not sure anybody does. But it is clear that this is the latest twist in a private story defined at every stage by the demands of sensational publicity. It dramatises the extraordinary power of the media to raise the stakes, to add new and often frightening dimensions to perennial human predicaments. We live in a world that great forces wish to make transparent: all the more reason, therefore, to protect the possibility of opacity.