The code of conduct for the Independent Press Standards Organisation, the regulator for the newspaper and magazine industry in the UK, stipulates that editors must not use the fame or position of a parent as justification for publishing the details of a child’s private life. It surely cannot be denied that this is a standard which ought to be upheld, if nothing else, in the name of decency. But it nevertheless provokes an interesting debate when pitched against the public interest in the lives of our elected representatives. To be clear, this is not to say that the private life of a politician, even a Prime Minister, is fair game to be violated with wanton disregard for the basic right to privacy. However, when a politician’s private actions reflect on their public image and political position, it undeniably becomes a matter of public concern. The question on everyone’s mind becomes; “does this person actually believe what they are saying?”
There is a good argument that the reporting of the education of David Cameron’s two children in the Mail on Sunday last week is crossing that line of decency. The educational histories of his two children are documented in thorough detail, publishing school names and locations (which I will not do here). The public interest lies in the explicit contradictions between what the PM has said in the past regarding public and private education, and his current plans for his son’s secondary education. In 2009, Cameron said “I’d like my children to go to state school. It’s crazy that we should have to pay lots of money for private schools. We all pay our taxes. You should have really good state schools available for all.” What the Mail is right to point out is that saying this and then sending your son to a private school seven years later smacks of a failure in education policy, particularly when you’re the one who appoints the Education Secretary.
To be fair to Cameron, he has made changes in that department, removing Michael Gove from the position in 2014 and replacing him with Loughborough’s very own Nicky Morgan. Clearly the changes have not come soon enough, as Cameron’s son will start secondary school in September 2017 and the prospects at the local state schools are apparently still insufficient. Cameron was also the first Tory Prime Minister to send their child to a state school, their daughter currently attending a Church of England girl’s school, which makes the situation all the more intriguing. Are the local girl’s schools simply better than boy’s or mixed-gender equivalents? Or is the truth rather more sinister, that Cameron was willing to allow his daughter’s education to be reduced to a political stunt, but not his son’s?
These are the questions that are of undeniable public interest, and illustrate exactly why Cameron’s decision to complain to IPSO on the grounds of privacy do not hold up to scrutiny. When a politician makes public statements on a political issue, they nail their colours to the mast and they must either practice what they preach or hold up their hands and admit they were wrong. Attempting to censor discussion of politically-relevant private actions tends only to exacerbate the problem and provoke further discussion (a phenomenon known as the Streisand Effect). Unfortunately for Cameron, attention is now drawn to questions of his honesty and political integrity rather than his opinions on the merits of private education over public education.