In the week past, Gordon Brown has been involved in a sad dispute with the Sun about whether that newspaper did or did not have his and his wife’s approval for publishing news of the then prime minister’s baby son Fraser’s cystic fibrosis.
The Sun (in the form of Rebekah Brooks) has claimed the couple consented to publication. The Browns claim they did not but, believing nothing could stop the report, tried to negotiate with the Sun about the manner in which the story came out, in order ‘to minimise the damage’, as Mr Brown put it.
Those two accounts are reconcilable. There is much in life to which we’re obliged to ‘consent’: the word can be used in different ways. But this argument is a mirage. The interesting assertion is the one both sides sidestep: not ‘did the Browns consent?’ but ‘was their consent required?’
The British newspaper industry appears too cowed today to offer, without apology, the right answer: which should be no.
Of course the Browns didn’t want their sad story to be published. At all. Anywhere. In any form. Ever. Who would? But you will not open an edition of any paper in the land — no, not even The Spectator — without encountering reports, comments and opinions that at least some of those involved will not fervently wish had not been published. No author wants to see his book trashed. No prisoner wants any report of his conviction to appear, and nor does his mother. Those close to the victims of accidents may heartily wish that their loved ones’ names and perhaps photographs had not appeared. A large part of the news we read hurts, embarrasses or shames someone who would have suppressed publication if he could; or reopens a wound someone would have preferred left to heal in darkness. Many of the most often-read reports in the land ‘invade’ what somebody — the innocent as well as the guilty — would wish to define as their ‘privacy’.
But I see not the ghost of an argument for the censorship (let’s not beat about the bush: suppression is censorship) of a report that a prime minister’s small son has been diagnosed with an affliction which will in the end destroy the child, and in the meantime bring untold trouble and sorrow to the parents, whether or not the public know. I’ve heard no suggestion that publication would have damaged the boy. The notion that telling this story could be even remotely inappropriate is very recent, as Mr Brown implicitly acknowledged when he remarked that there would have been no possibility at the time of stopping publication. It troubles me now to hear hardly any voice raised to suggest that the consensus then prevailing was right, and the consensus gathering force in the Leveson era today — that young Fraser’s story should have been suppressed — is wrong.
We are going the way of continental Europe, where a French president can keep a mistress and an illegitimate child without the press reporting it.
Here’s something that may surprise you. Gro Harlem Brundtland, known in Norway as ‘Mother of the Nation’ — and whom Anders Behring Breivik said was his principal target last year on Utøya Island (mercifully she had left) — resigned as leader of the Labour party at the party’s convention in November 1992, mysteriously citing ‘personal reasons’, yet carrying on as prime minister. Her son Jørgen, had committed suicide, aged 25. He had suffered for seven years from manic depression.
The resignation went entirely unexplained in the Norwegian media, and the suicide unreported. The story never broke. A gentlemen’s agreement in the media world ensured that the voters were kept in the dark. Even today there is little in the public domain, and Brundtland’s Wikipedia entry says only that one son is ‘deceased’. But in the first of her husband’s two bestselling autobiographies, a whole chapter was devoted to the story, Arne Brundtland describing how he told the editor of Norway’s most popular magazine to publish nothing about Jørgen’s behaviour, which included theft of an ambulance and, later, theft of loaded guns from a military camp. The editor complied.
Imagine David Cameron resigning as Tory leader (while carrying on as PM) for ‘personal’ reasons, and our press being told not to mention his reasons. Or imagine Mr Brown resigning later to care for Fraser and the British media being obliged sheepishly to explain why we’d never said anything at the time. The Scandinavian approach may seem extraordinary to you; but it plainly cannot seem extraordinary to Scandinavians, so there must be a huge difference between their media culture and ours.
They are the poorer for it. Why? The easy way to end this essay would be for me to burble about the ‘public interest’ and insist that the private lives of national leaders do (or might) impinge on their public duties, and that is why we’ve a right to know. But I’ll take the harder path, because the ‘public interest’ defence is often just lowbrow human-interest journalism pretending to a high-minded motive. The Fraser Brown story might or might not have proved to be in the public interest, but that isn’t honestly why you or I would want to know about it. We’d want to know for reasons chroniclers, playwrights, poets, biographers and autobiographers have understood for at least the last 4,000 years when depicting the famous and the infamous: human beings are curious — simply curious — about the whole man, including (and particularly) the private man.
In a democratic age, our politicians understand this curiosity well, and try to engage with it in ways that only flatter them. We must never allow the governing class — via Leveson, via lawyers, via ‘statutory codes’ or via appointed committees of worthies — to frame the terms of that engagement themselves. In a less shellshocked state than we find ourselves in today, we in the press would be shouting that from the rooftops.