Leading Article: In the public interest

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The Independent Online
AS Secretary of State for Health, Virginia Bottomley has a right, some would say a duty, to preach. Last week she exercised that right. The tone of her White Paper on the health of the nation was exhortatory, as were her remarks at the launch of the document. Moreover, Mrs Bottomley defined 'health' rather widely. Among other matters, specifically, the White Paper embraced family planning on behalf of her department, not on social policy grounds, but because of 'the important part it (family planning) plays in the health of children and the wellbeing of families'. She added that almost half of all conceptions were 'in some sense unwanted or unintended'.

The document was widely interpreted as being, in a phrase used by the Sun, a declaration of war on 'teeny mums'. It was in this context that the Independent reported on Friday that Mrs Bottomley had herself given birth before marriage while at Essex University in 1967. Three months later she married the father, Peter Bottomley, now an MP, to whom she is still married. Following our report, Mr Bottomley asked the Press Complaints Commission to adjudicate on whether the story breached its code of practice.

The basis of any complaint would have been that privacy of the Bottomley family had been improperly invaded. The Independent's defence would have been that publication was in the public interest rather than merely of interest to the public. Had the issue gone to adjudication, this paper would have defended itself with vigour and we believe that we would have been successful. It remains our contention that there was a genuine and legitimate public interest in the story.

By choosing to enter public life, politicians invite a degree of scrutiny of their private lives. But not all the information gathered merits publication. In this case, however, it added to our understanding to discover that an able and widely respected Secretary of State for Health, drawing attention to the problems surrounding young unmarried mothers, should have gone through the difficult though in no way discreditable experience herself. As far as one can tell she handled the situation with admirable success.

It is all too easy to suggest that other people ought to demonstrate moral courage, but, had Mrs Bottomley prefaced her remarks last week with a brief reference to her situation a quarter of a century ago, and to the problems (if any) that she faced at the time, it would have added to her reputation, not tarnished it. Such a gesture would also have given enhanced credibility to the sensible advice she was offering young people.

What is unfortunate, looking back, is that our report gave the name of the Bottomleys' eldest child, who is, incidentally, now an adult. The story itself was a legitimate and useful piece of information which merited publication. The child's name was irrelevant and its publication regrettable.