Chris Huhne has broken the law and – quite rightly – will likely be going to jail. His personal behaviour, first the speeding then the lying have led to his political downfall. A lawmaker cannot be a lawbreaker.
Chris Huhne deserves to be punished for his wrongdoing. But his public punishment is that jail sentence. His public punishment is the loss of his career. His public punishment is the public exposure of the hubris that has been his undoing.
Chris Huhne chose to be a public figure. His son Peter has not. His son Peter deserves the privacy we would all expect when we are going through a difficult time with our families. That Chris Huhne hypocritically used the family he was about to destroy during an election campaign is not the fault of that family. They should not be further destroyed in the court of public opinion. The texts between Huhne and his son should have been protected. There was no public interest in that heartbreak.
Politician’s children do not belong to the general public. They are private individuals with public parents. Many may choose the same path, but if they do opt for public life, then that should be their choice (that it should be their talent that informs their success, not their connections is a column for another day). Their privacy must be respected and fought for as much as we fight for the privacy of any individual.
It is also true of politicians children whatever age they are. In Ben Goldacre’s otherwise excellent book ‘Bad Science’ he describes the non-disclosure of details around Leo Blair’s vaccinations as “the biggest public health disaster of all”. I understand that Ben Goldacre doesn’t like Tony Blair much, and I respect his reasons why. But the sins of the father should absolutely not be visited on the child. Just as politicians should not use their children as ornaments so too should those children have their privacy respected by others. I believe strongly that supporting the MMR jab in the way the Labour government did was the right thing to do in terms of public health. I don’t believe that opening up the medical records of the Prime Ministers’ children to public scrutiny is the right way to go about promoting that. The MMR disclosure becomes the catalyst for the media seeking disclosure on a lot nastier things.
Imagine if a child of a senior politician contracted a Sexually transmitted disease? Developed an alcohol or drug habit? Had an abortion? Or just wanted to go on the pill at 13? These would be considered along the same “public interest” lines as the MMR job would have been in 2001. Privacy between a patient and a doctor should remain paramount – and that must be particularly true when the patient is a minor, unable to decide for themselves how public they want their medical history to be.
This is true in the wider arena too. If Nick Clegg sends his children to private school I won’t judge them for being privately educated. I will however, judge him for making that choice. Just as I judge any politicians who speaks of fairness and equality while giving their child a wholly artificial boost in life. Not least for not having the clarity to realise that it is their children who suffer in an unequal world too. The failings of Nick Clegg as a politician and he failing of his commitment to the values he espouses are his fault. As a politicians he can and should be judged harshly on them. But just as don’t judge Labour politicians who went to private school for the choices their parents made, so too do I refuse to judge Clegg’s children for his misjudgement.
As the world gets more complicated public every day, we need to think about what we have a right to know from people who are not themselves political actors and who have never sought to be. I may be the last generation who grew up not making my most ghastly mistakes in ways that would have an everlasting digital imprint. As a rather misguided Sunday Express journalist proved when she went after the Facebook pages of the survivors of the Dunblane massacre, it’s easy to find dirt on ordinary kids if you go looking. Imagine how much easier that is when the kid has famous parents.
As the case of Chris Huhne has shown, it was not enough for the press to go after his crime and report his downfall. The family angle was all too prurient for them to ignore. This kind of intrusion – into the lives of people whose only crime was to be born to parents with political jobs – must be part and parcel of any discussion over how privacy and regulation of media intrusion can and must work.