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Age of innocence?

Two recent stories from either side of the Atlantic have brought home how the pursuit of publicity and fame now seems to override all considerations, including what is best for children and issues of privacy and shame.

You may have seen the recent story about the American woman who has given birth to twins with different fathers. This is because on the day of conception or thereabouts as well as having intercourse with her partner she had intercourse with another man and consequently the two eggs were separately fertilised. This is a very rare event. That (together with potential appeal to prurient sections of the population) will be how the newspapers came to regard this as a valuable story. The partner is commendably standing by the mother and intends to raise both children as if they were his own. No doubt the mother could not resist the opportunity to be in the national and international press. Can she have considered for a moment how this made her appear? Can she have considered that he was lucky to have her partner stand by her without parading the position in the press? Moreover once the story is out everyone will know and the children will grow up with everyone knowing. Can this possibly be in their best interests? How will this come back to haunt them or affect their relationships with each other and their parents?

Meanwhile in England even those who only read the quality press will have been unable to avoid the saga of Alfie Patten the 13-year-old who is alleged to have been a father (having conceived a child whilst only 12) at the same time as looking about eight. The child, Maisie, daughter of Chantelle Stedman, 15, was said to have been his. Other youths came forward to say they had slept with the girl, and DNA tests have now shown that the true father is another teenager, 15-year-old Tyler Barker. After the DNA tests in the High Court Mrs Justice Eleanor King made an order allowing reporting of this fact (so that in effect obviously is to confirm by inference that Alfie Patten is not the father). This decision (opposed by the local council) was no doubt heavily influenced by the fact that since the story and the various participants had already been plastered all over the media there was little more damage to be done by the truth coming out, particularly since it meant that it at least drew a line under the story. This was against a background where the details of the various "encounters" were recounted in the press, including Tyler Barker suggesting that Chantelle's mother knew he was going to sleep with Chantelle and the following day even asked him "Did you have a good night?", alleging that he was not the only boy to stay over with the girl in her bed. One of the more bizarre aspects of the story was that more than one teenage boy was willing to be named and quoted as having slept with an underage girl. (Albeit that they seem to have been underage at the time ).

Meanwhile the Patten family had engaged the publicist Max Clifford. There was even a bizarre episode when Mr Patten was wearing a mask and holding a placard saying "No Comment Ring Max". Alfie Patten, famously, when being asked about fatherhood (a child of that age being interviewed with the agreement and apparent encouragement of one or both of his parents!), in response to the question as to how he would cope financially said "what's financially?". With the possibility of tabloid or television payments, not to mention "fame", everyone seemed to want to get in on the act.

I fail to see how it can ever be appropriate (even if the minors keep the money) to permit them to parade their private lives in this fashion. Unfortunately we live in an age where fame is an end in itself. Being on television is an end in itself. When even a young woman dying of cancer becomes a sort of soap opera reality death show, it is difficult to see that there are any boundaries which will necessarily remain. Most people no longer care about being famous for something good, they just want to be famous. I fear this is also part of the source of the various high school killing sprees that have been seen of late.

It is a shame that some people do not grasp what matters should essentially be private ones. However where those involve children a line should be drawn. I would like to see an end to the constant torrent of legislation, but I would be prepared to see an exception for legislation to deal with this phenomenon. Ensuring that parents were stripped of any financial gain from disseminating such stories in relation to their children would be a start. Additional provisions to protect the privacy of the children, with potential effect for parents and the media (financial penalties would be a sufficient deterrent) would also be useful. It is bad enough if participants do not seem to realise that these stories are likely to hold them in ridicule rather than a good light, but where possible children should be protected from consequences which could continue for years or even generations to come.

Michael J. Booth QC