Sins of the father - or the press?

Simply being related to a public figure should not make you fair game for media intrusion The real question raised here was not one of media ethics but of public ethics
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The Independent Online
Last year, as a result of successive sex scandals involving members of the Government, there was much opportunity to consider the question of the propriety of reporting a politician's private life. We columnists felt - perhaps like some of those politicians involved - that we had tried out every position there was.

However, the ethical Karma Sutraflaps open to reveal new contortions of morality in the form of two unorthodox political sex stories: this week's extensive revelations from Mrs Jean Keirans, once the lover of the young John Major, and this week's coverage of rumours of an involvement between the Prime Minister's son and a married colleague at his employer, Marks & Spencer. These two stories raise new questions about why and whether the media foot should breach the bedroom door.

Let us take first the story of Mrs Keirans. The "kiss-and-tell" story is a well-established genre of journalism. The narrative published in the Daily Mail last week was very much in the familiar tradition: sex on the sofa, cuddly-toy love gifts, angry words, split-up. There were, however, two important differences. Never before has the source of a kiss- and-tell story been a grey-haired, 65-year-old woman. Never before have the revelations involved no adultery or sexual betrayal, but merely been the memories of the relationship between two single people 30 years before.

Major loyalists have argued that the coverage given to this antique coupling resulted from the willingness of the media to use any ammunition, however blank, against the Prime Minister: even pre-marital sex in Brixton 30 years ago is considered sufficient to maintain the sense of "crisis" around him. This seems unlikely, as sudden allegations of unexpected emotional depth and a surprisingly interesting life were always likely to be helpful to the subject. "It's the best publicity he's had in ages," said one party source, only half joking.

In fact, I think the fascination with this ancient romance was a direct result of the Prime Minister's personality. Although there have been numerous biographies and interviews, John Major's character remains shadowy. This is partly because of politics: keeping his opinions oblique to secure the Thatcherite succession, he now remains tactically vague on Europe. Yet the mystery is deeper. Voters may never have known the real Thatcher, Reagan or Clinton, but they at least perceived a coherent personality which was being offered for public consumption. John Major remains an enigma, the most psychologically mysterious leader, the most opaque public persona, of recent times. Like police investigating the life of a murder victim, we become fascinated by anyone who seems to possess vital clues.

The sudden cult of Terry Major-Ball, the PM's older brother, is one result of this hunt. We hope that close examination of a sibling may take us closer to the riddle in Number 10. When the news emerged that a Prime Minister who had given no previous hint of sensuality had apparently been involved as a 22-year-old with a 35-year-old woman, hopes rose again that the case might soon be cracked. At investigations HQ, the pages of conversation with the Mail's Lynda Lee-Potter were forensically read.

The Pooterish quality which has always seemed an aspect of Major's character was confirmed by Jean's account of their first date: "I said: `Would you like to come up for coffee?', which he did. He had his folder with him and asked me if I'd like to join the Young Conservatives. I said: `I think I'm a bit old for the Young Conservatives, I'm 35.' He said: `But you could join the Association'."

That brilliant clincher - "But you could join the Association" - catches the authentic Major tone of pedantic common sense. But light was shed on the central mystery of the Prime Minister - that one so apparently dull and proper could have risen so steadily through the ruthless world of politics - by another, more sinister, tone that emerged from his lover's recollections. We learnt that he "hated Sundays because they had no structure to them". He also apparently steadfastly refused to use the traditional three words of romance.

Mrs Keirans explains: "I'd say it to him, but he always told me, `I'm never ever going to say to anybody in my life I love you, until I say to somebody, I love you, will you marry me?' "

This evidence of a calculating mind, or one easily compartmentalised, was genuinely revealing. It perhaps helps us to understand some of Mr Major's recent behaviour: he is in a long-term relationship with Europe, but until certain key words are spoken in 1996, it is not to be considered a permanent one. Similarly, many in the Conservative Party may smile wryly at Mrs Keirans' recollection of times when "his mouth was saying one thing, his emotions were saying another".

Admittedly, publication of this story must have been distressing for the Majors; Norma, in particular, is an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire. But the real question raised here was not one of media ethics but of public ethics: the increasing willingness of people, whatever their social background, to enter into deals with newspapers for information they possess about a public figure. The end of any social stigma attached to such snitching is surely largely a product of the recent fondness of the Prince and Princess of Wales for book deals and relationships with newspapers.

Even so, there must be limits and the children of the famous are surely not to be regarded as fair game. The celebrity of a politician is willed and sought, and therefore scrutiny is an accepted risk, but the connection of their offspring to the limelight is accidental, unless, as with Mark Thatcher or Ronald Reagan Jr, there seem to have been attempts to trade on the family connection.

There is no evidence, however, that James Major has sought public attention. An attempt was made to justify the intrusion by linking it with the previous, quite different Mrs Keirans story: "Like father, like son", as if a fondness for older women might be genetic. But the real story behind the reporting of the Prime Minister's son and his private life is its illustration of how a justifiable, well-handled story can spawn a dubious and intrusive one. This is one of the effects of modern competitive journalism.

What, then, is the moral of the Major sex sagas? That every politician must now fear the publication of old and innocent love stories? I don't think so. It was largely the strange and continuing mystery of John Major, even after more than four years in the highest political position in Britain, that made these tender pensioner's reflections saleable.

More significant are the implications of the James Major story for the children of Tony Blair, who may expect widespread documentation of their adolesence, and, even more, for the young Royal princes, whose privacy, with married women or unmarried ones, will be violated by journalists with the smirking justification of constitutional significance.