Not all that interests is of `public interest'

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The Independent Online
Of course there is a "public interest" argument for publishing the fact of Robin Cook's affair with his assistant: the public are interested. Let us admit that we are intrigued by the fact that the Foreign Secretary is leaving his wife and that we want (within limits) to know more. But is it a scandal? Do we have a right to know because Mr Cook has done something wrong? Of course not.

Not even the News of the World, which specialises in lame excuses for its prurience, could dream one up this time. With David Mellor's affair with Antonia de Sancha it was that the then Secretary of State for National Heritage would be "too tired" to perform his ministerial duties. But with Mr Cook its leader-writer simply gave up. "This is not an occasion to question Mr Cook's suitability to perform as Foreign Secretary - a job he is doing with distinction," the paper opines. So why is the story important enough for the front page? Because it was "unwise" of Mr Cook to "pursue a clandestine affair" when he must have known his conduct - "private and public" - would be subjected to a "high degree of scrutiny" (especially by the News of the World). Besides, there had been "rumours" about his private life. Which "does leave a question mark over his handling of a problem that was bound to become public in the fullness of time." It does no such thing: all it does is ask again a familiar series of questions about the responsibilities of the press, the right of privacy and the morals of public figures.

But just because they are familiar, does not mean they are easy to answer. It was interesting, for example, that the News of the World made no attempt to justify printing pictures of Gaynor Regan, Mr Cook's House of Commons assistant, on the grounds of hypocrisy that were used so often to hound Conservative ministers. However, the fact that Mr Cook has never moralised about the family did not hold the Mail on Sunday back. It used Mr Cook's announcement as an excuse to wheel out a story which had already appeared as a diary item and give it new prominence. Under the headline "Family Values?" the Mail reported Mr Cook's split alongside the fact that Jonathan Powell, the Prime Minister's chief of staff who is separated from his wife, and his girlfriend Sarah Helm, the Independent's Brussels correspondent, are expecting a baby. The implication being that the two marital break- ups somehow undermine Tony Blair's claim to present Labour as the "party of the family".

Certainly it is true that Mr Blair's rhetoric of the need for "strong families" as the building block of strong communities sails rather close to the wind of traditionalist Tory teaching about the sanctity of the family. That was the purpose of it: to reclaim mainstream values for Labour. And he has said that it is better, other things being equal, for children to be brought up by two parents rather than one. This was widely interpreted as being hostile to lone parents and censorious about marital breakdown, but it was populist rather than reactionary. Most people in this country, including most lone parents, would probably agree that two caring parents would be better than one; but they recognise that the ideal is not always possible and that it can be difficult, if not impossible, to apportion blame. Mr Blair has always been resolutely unjudgemental about individual circumstances. "While in an ideal world all marriages would be lasting, the truth is these situations do arise," said a Downing Street statement yesterday.

Where the Conservatives got into trouble was with their own grassroots traditionalists, who took "Back to Basics" to mean all sorts of things not intended by John Major, himself a tolerant liberal whose views on such matters are hard to distinguish from Mr Blair's. Even Margaret Thatcher herself, who had married a divorced man, was never as personally censorious as painted. But she had been forced to make her favourite, Cecil Parkinson, resign because he had behaved badly. The fact that he fathered a child by his Commons assistant and then abandoned her did not necessarily make him a bad Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, but it did not endear his character to the general public, which matters in a democracy.

The Tories' attempt yesterday to accuse Labour of double standards because of a leaflet attacking Lord Parkinson in the Uxbridge by-election was feeble. All the leaflet said, under the headline "Same Old Tories, Same Old Faces", was that he was "forced to resign due to Government's embarrassment at revelations of his indiscretion under Mrs Thatcher 14 years ago". He did embarrass his government, Mr Cook has not.

Mr Cook has not behaved badly. His sons are grown up. And he did the right thing in speaking to the cameras rather than issuing a written statement and providing awkward footage of his dash from front door to car door. Which raises the question of media harassment. Of course, in Mr Blair's "ideal world", it would have been better if Mr and Mrs Cook could have made a quiet announcement of their separation at a time of their choosing, rather than be forced into distressing private conversations because freelance photographers had been hanging around outside a Pimlico flat. And it would have been better if it had been reported factually and soberly - although BBC Radio went too far in relegating it to the eighth item and not mentioning Ms Regan.

But this does not constitute a case for a law of privacy for public figures. It would be wrong for journalists to be forbidden to report that the Foreign Secretary was having an affair with his secretary, just because he wanted it kept secret. Last week the Lord Chancellor, Derry Irvine, dropped an interesting hint. He suggested that it would be better for Parliament to debate the issue and pass a Privacy Act, rather than allow judges to make up the law as they interpreted the European Convention on Human Rights. But if Parliament lays down the law, there will be a strong temptation for MPs to protect themselves. This might distract from the fact that there is a case for a privacy law to protect so-called "ordinary" citizens from some of the excesses of the tabloid press, or at least to redress the awesome imbalance of power between them.

But, in yesterday's case, while we may not approve of what the News of the World has done, we have to concede its right to do it.